Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


'Checkmate!' cried the robot

By Melvin Maddocks / November 20, 1980



A Scotsman named David Levy has been making a nice profit out of computers. Mr. Levy is the reigning Scottish chess champion, and since 1968 -- the year a computer named Hal defeated an astronaut at chess in "2001" -- Mr. Levy has been betting every Hal in sight that he could beat him, or it.

Skip to next paragraph

The stakes started at around $1,250 and soon doubled, and the master has been winning with the regularity of, well, a robot. He has met and conquered electronic challengers out of Northwestern and MIT and the Institute of Control Sciences in Moscow.

Still, Mr. Levy has not become overconfident as he hunches over his board, a small, worried-looking man in a huge, bulky knit sweater, confronting a robot arm instructed via satellite by a remote computer. His first challenge to all computer comers was limited to 10 years. By 1980, he feared, a Levy nemesis might have been programmed.

In 1978 a Chess 4.6 model out of Northwestern, home of Big Ten champions, did battle him to a tie. Mr. Levy won the next two games, but then the unthinkable happened. chess 4.6 actually took a game. Mr. Levy explained that he had only been "experimenting."

"That's what they all say," you may scoff. But Mr. Levy did go on to win the next game, and shortly afterwards he decided to extend his challenge another 10 years.

It must be emphasized that Mr. Levy is no lost- cause romantic, trying to prove that anything a computer can do, a human can do better. He is, in fact, a professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh. Nobody understands better that the opponents are closing in.

"Belle," a computer designed at Bell Telephone, is capable of examining 160, 000 positions a second, according to Science '80 magazine.

So far, Mr. Levy has won by superior long-range strategy. The computer is weak at anticipating several moves ahead. But almost every day that robot arm casts a longer shadow across Mr. Levy's chessboard.

Just last week IBM introduced its biggest business computer, the 3081 in the new "H Series." The price is $3.72 million, or $93,000 a month rent under a four-year lease. The 3081 can store 16 million characters of data and can digest 10 million instructions per second.

That's an awful lot of chess moves.

Why is it that we suddenly want to change the subject back to Mr. Levy? Are we one of those people who would have regarded the invention of the automobile as direct insult to the horse?

We know it's childish to get carried away with the "brain" metaphor of the computer and see everything as a shoo-out between human intelligence and electronic "intelligence." We didn't really believe we're falling into that silliness.

But we must admit we crave human presence somewhere on the scene. When we first saw the "braided" ring around Saturn, we heard, to our amazement, this petulant voice within, grumbling: "I've seen more interesting patterns in a whipped cream bowl."

What we meant (we think) is: Where was the human, without whom there can be no human scale?

This is not a mean and ignorant prejudice against science, we keep telling ourselves. The same feeling can affect us in front of a painting without the presence of life. And it's not just abstract paintings. We can taste a craving for The Missing Person in a still life -- though we dearly love those dew-kissed fruit plates -- and in even the best landscapes, sans shepherd or nymph.

The poet W. H. Auden noted that the gravest events will occur "while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. . . . There always must be children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood."

He takes it to be the sign of a Great Master to include the corroborating detail -- to reveal that the most earth-shaking history happens in your world and mine.

Politics as well as science -- and indeed all the dramas that pust to front stage center -- tend to get off the human scale. And yet, are the Big Events really the center of life? Or does the mainstream actualy flow in those margins , where ordinary people do ordinary things, and give the rest of the picture its scale?

We ordinary people leading ordinary lives worry about these things -- for instance, when scientists get too absorbed in building instruments of power, and politicians get too interested in using them.

So we are comforted to see David Levy, in his bulky sweater, on one side of the chessboard instead of two robot arms. He doesn't have to win. It's enough that he be there.