From the reaction, you would assume that another John Henry had split his gut competing against a steam drill.
When Garry Kasparov was beaten by an IBM computer called Deep Blue, a collective howl arose from his hometown human team. Machine Beats Man. Computer is Chess Champ. Deep Blue Deep Sixes Man. Humans Lose.The head of the winning IBM team, C.J. Tan, was ecstatic, of course, exclaiming, "A hundred years from now, people will say this day was the beginning of the Information Age." It was a moment he compared to landing on the moon.
But the chairman of the chess committee for a computing association was more typically gloomy. He declared that this match "had the impact of a Greek tragedy."
All in all, the post-game analysis was enough to make you pity poor humanity. Cloned in March, we were checkmated in May.
I suspect there was more than a touch of anxiety in the post-game analysis of the contest for mental championship of the world. You didn't need to know a rook from a hard disk to share the moment. It struck a chord with anyone who has ever been downsized or cyberized and come to regard the brave new computer world as a people-unfriendly environment.
Kasparov, who had never had occasion until now to learn how to be a good loser, started mumbling darkly about "a big corporation with unlimited resources" and "a zeal to beat Garry Kasparov." He was suddenly protesting that "you have to give a human a chance to rest" and demanding a rematch.
The advantages that Deep Blue had over a quirky, cantankerous chess master did seem so familiar. Deep Blue doesn't get tired. It doesn't have moods. Deep Blue doesn't even want the $700,000 prize money.
Did you notice that IBM stock went up six points or roughly $3 billion the day after the match? Any champ with half a brain would have had an agent yelling, "Sweetheart, we don't pick up the next pawn for less than $100 million!" Deep Blue gave it back to the company.
Nevertheless, I don't think people have been outwitted yet. And not just because our team programmed the winner. We are also the ones who define what smart is. When computers beat us at our own game, we have this thoroughly human little habit of revising it to our advantage.
Did you notice what happened after the laments about Greek tragedies had all been filed? After the IBM team went out for a celebratory drink - and, by the way, didn't even invite Deep Blue?
Following the initial moans about the computer as the victor, about the artificial intelligence as the greater intelligence, there was a second wave of comments designed to proclaim our own superiority.
The same IBM man who had compared this event to a moon landing backtracked, saying, "Humans have unique qualities. They are creative, they are psychological beings." A physicist writing a letter to The New York Times looked down at a computer which "doesn't get tired, bored, happy or sad, and doesn't know in any meaningful way whether it wins or loses."
Meanwhile on the radio, a caller exclaimed that a computer can't even cry. An editorial writer huffed that it can't even dream or debate the existence of God.
In the not-so-distant past, anyone who could perform math feats in their head was considered a certified genius. Now that a palm-size calculator can perform them, the skill is less valued.
The ability to play chess like an automaton also once made for a master. Now anyone playing against a real automaton may just be a loser.
But at the same time, we are already on the way to redefining and revaluing other characteristics that are our own. Our ability to get tired and bored? The capacity to cry? Suddenly these booby prizes are at the top of the warm and fuzzy human heap.
As machines do the computing, we already recompute who we are. We are emotions, intuition, creatures who wrestle with meaning - stuff that cannot be programmed.
Like a lot of folks, I lost to computers long before Kasparov. I can't even keep pace with the program on a stationary bicycle. I have exhibited enough hostility to new software to make the chess master look laid-back.
But I have no doubt that in the match between human and machine, we'll always be one move ahead. Because we write the rules of this game. Checkmate.