Machines at play

R. Sundaram | Updated on June 29, 2012


We are all extremely happy and proud that Viswanathan Anand retained his world championship for the fifth time. Will we ever produce a champion like him in the future? Probably not. Or differently viewed, do we need a world champion in the future, in the midst of ubiquitous and peremptory computing machines? IBM’s Deep Blue, a 1.4-tonne computer with a formidable array of 256 processors working in tandem, beat Gary Kasparov, the world champion in 1997, although he thought that the machine had cheated him.

Conceited champions?

Today, a chess programme picked up at store will defeat you and me hands down. So also in case we try checkers, backgammon or poker. With the computing power continually increasing according to Moore’s law, a tablet may even defeat us at the American quiz show, Jeopardy!, in which IBM’s Watson proved its prowess a year ago.

What does it all show? In any win-lose board game a computer can be programmed to defeat any human. Therefore, can we truly call any human being a world champion?

Though it is sad now to foresee the fate of the championships of the board games being surrendered to computers, the inexorability of such an eventuality cannot be denied. Or if we have to retain human control over chess and other games we may have to reinvent or rewrite the rules of these games in an even more complicated way till more faster and powerful computers manage to beat us once again. In the longer run, it may well become a hare-and-tortoise race.

Personal enjoyment

It is a no-brainer to say that these games are not spectator shows. Yet we derive some personal enjoyment playing with our neighbour. Take tennis. Played with a few participants, the matches still draw lots of TV viewers. While Nadal and Federer slug it out at Roland Garros, millions watch with bated breath and about a few thousands watch them from the stands in the stadium. For the millions who watch on TV, it really makes no difference if they are watching a live match or a repeat telecast of an earlier encounter, but for the fact that they have been told to anticipate new results in the case of the former.

Reduced to a TV spectacle, it can well be imagined that the motions of the players can be simulated by computers firing the pixels on the TV screen appropriately by programmes such as in Wei, Xbox or PlayStation. The TV viewer would not be able to tell the difference between a real live telecast and such a simulation. Think again. Or we can have Federer in Switzerland serving thundering aces and their parameters of speed, trajectory and other measures transmitted to Spain, where a ball will be released accordingly from a machine. Nadal will receive the ball from this ball thrower and respond.

A similar machine in Spain will transmit data back to Switzerland, where Federer will volley. This back-and-forth transmission can be so organised that the viewers would not be any wiser about the venue of the tournament.

Although, you may now laugh at this ridiculous prospect, it is well within the realm of possibility that the Grand Slam matches in 2050 need not be played in Wimbledon, Flushing Meadows, Roland Garros or Melbourne, but only on your TV screen.

Published on June 29, 2012

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