Of Machines and Men

Executive Summary:

If you would like to read the punchline of this note, you may advance to its last paragraph.

Richard Veryard has left me a stimulating comment that shows he has scratched beyond the simple surface of my little note on playing chess against the computers. I had quoted Rustam Kasimdzhanov:

Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the reigning champion of the World Chess Federation, shares why he thinks it is important to compete against computers: "Sports are not about reaching a result. Sport is about developing your inner qualities."

And Richard wrote, equally simply:

What's the difference between (1) competing against the computer and (2) competing against the clock?

This should be a very deep question, at least for the computing types.

A Turing Machine, which is ultimately the best model of a computing machinary we have, realizes the connection between time and space—otherwise, how could it be capable of trading one off the other?

However, we are not, ourselves, machinary per se. Our time-space trade-off fulfils a different purpose when compared to the computer.

In other words, just because the Turing Machine can trade-off space and time, it doesn't mean we can. In fact, we are incapable of it, in the sense that we grow to find the distinction between time and space to be fundamental, although time can be interpreted, philosophically speaking, as simply a distance in space—see for example works of John McMurray where he has made this point quite clear in his analysis of how children grow a relationship, in time, with the outside world, with the world of parental love and care, through the occasional spacial absence of that very love and care. (For a good one-paragraph account of McMurray's philosophy, search for his name on this web page for Bannan Center of Jesuit Education.)

So, when we (not the machine) play against the computer, we are not simply competing against the clock. The computer occupies a space that is quite different from the space that a human opponent would occupy for us. Therefore, the game against the computer becomes a sport, just as Kasimdzhanov notes (see above), and by definition, all sports include an aspect that tests the limits of our "performance."

Furthermore, the space that a human opponent would occupy not only differs physically, in the contours that completely distinguish it from the space occupied by a computer opponent, but also extends itself to relations to other human spaces. Human spaces relate to other human spaces in ways that are qutie different from the way the space of a machine relates to the space of the room where it is sitting, the wires that connect it to the wall and the cieling fans that cool the room.

Therefore, playing against the computer cannot be like playing against the clock, unless the one who plays the computer is itself a computer.

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Comments:

When a sportsman competes against the clock, the clock is also performing the function of realizing the connection between time and space.

I had interpreted Kasimdzhanov's point as follows. It is not just that the computer is now stronger at chess than the human. After all, the motor car can run faster than a human, but no athlete bothers to compete against the motor car.

Surely the point is that the computer (like the clock) provides a benchmark for the human to measure and improve his/her own performance, and compare with other humans.

In other words, both the computer and the clock are pervasive forms of technology that alter (refocus) the competitive landscape.

Posted by Richard Veryard on June 24, 2005 at 12:02 PM PDT #

Great clarification. I see your point much better, now, particularly the point you make regarding the concept of clock and the computer as benchmarks.

Posted by M. Mortazavi on June 24, 2005 at 08:02 PM PDT #

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