Smart machines, dumb people

Site reviews ranging from a Java-powered online chess game to the 'worst technical manuals ever written.'

Impervious to objective measurement, intelligence is nevertheless a quality which can be easily recognized by its presence - or absence. At the highest levels, it can be used to create another intelligence, itself capable of presenting its creator with entertainment and challenge. At less lofty heights it can, by its underutilization, create challenges of a distinctly different sort - challenges whose entertainment value comes strictly with the detachment that accompanies a pie in someone else's face. This week's sites have almost nothing in common, save that they represent opposite ends of this continuum - and for the visitor, they also demonstrate that you don't always have to be a genius to enjoy a nice game of chess, but sometimes you do have to be smarter than the manual to know how something works.

The first site on offer is an example of an IQ that's in the black - Thinking Machine 4 is a Java-powered, online chess game with a few important differences from others of its kind. First, it's not a spectacularly skillful, Java-powered, online chess game, so there's a reasonable chance that humans will be able to beat it. Second, it very kindly - and artfully - shares its own thought process with opponents before each move. (A helpful courtesy that might actually prove distracting enough to get you off your own game.)

Created as an interactive artwork to explore, "the invisible, elusive nature of thought," Thinking Machine 4 is played onsite, without requiring any downloads, plug-ins, or complicated instructions - other than the rules of the game itself. (For the curious, the histories of Thinking Machine numbers 1-3 are briefly covered on the site's Play The Game page.) Upon loading the chessboard, and each time it waits for an opponent to make a move, the Java applet displays a series of concentric rings emanating from the various pieces, mapping out each piece's "sphere of influence." (The computer always plays Black, and so always moves second.) After you make a move, the applet then begins to draw a series of lines across the board - as the computer sifts its way through each possible move and the potential consequences of that action several turns ahead. (The computer's moves are displayed in orange - with brighter oranges denoting preferred options - and White's projected responses appearing in green.)

It's a fascinating process to watch - probably even more so for those with a better understanding of chess. And not only does this bit of strategic sketching make the computer's decision making process more accessible than viewing the decision trees that were presumably used in creating the applet, the lines themselves appear very "human" - appearing in the likeness of hand drawn strokes rather than bold, geometric lines, and fading into view rather than simply appearing in an on/off fashion. (If you'd rather just have a look at some of the software's artworks without playing along, the site offers a few game-in-progress screen captures in its Image Gallery.)

While Thinking Machine 4 nicely reveals the computer's - and presumably, the experienced player's - thought processes during a game of chess, the second site is dedicated to the consequences of businesses that put thinking on hold while creating some fairly important documents. Winners in the Technical Standards 2004 Worst Manual Contest (and its predecessors) range from the comical to the potentially dangerous, and while largely comprised of the work of translators who apparently didn't know either of the languages they were dealing with, nominees also include examples of; Stupid Instructions, Made-up Words, Left-Out Steps, Spelling Errors, and Bad Grammar.

The 2004 grand prize winner earned its title on the weight of a mere two pages taken from an air conditioner manual which, despite its linguistic and visual shortcomings, still had the lofty goal, "to have the observance without fail to prevent the damage to harm and the property beforehand to the person who use this product and other persons." With helpful advisories that include, "Please note whether the installed stand hurt or not," and the truly baffling, "Please do not put the one embarrassed because it gets wet under the air conditioner," one is left thinking that putting the manual through AltaVista's Babel Fish might have netted a better result. Or, to quote the online translator, "One is left to think what it puts the handbook through the fish of AltaVista's Confusion might have covered a better result with nets." (Come to think of it, perhaps that's what they did do.)

PDFs or photographs of the winning publications are included for documentary evidence, and there are three pages of previous years' winners archived for posterity. Historic examples include a nine-page installation manual for a car alarm (five pages of which are written ENTIRELY IN CAPITAL LETTERS) - which boasts 14 appearances of "READ THIS FIRST BEFORE YOU INSTALL" (probably all ignored), and such common sense warnings as, "DO NOT OPEN THE BRAIN OTHERWISE YOU CAN SCREW IT UP AND YOU WILL VOID THE WARRANTY." (If I had a dime for every time I heard that...)

Not entirely limited to appliance handbooks, the contest also honors an employee manual which welcomes new staff with the surprising fact that a worker's seniority "terminates" if they quit or are fired. (Actionable offenses include, "Possession of firearms or illegal knives or explosive materials on Company property.") But perhaps the manual's high point is this nicely ironic safety reminder; "Remember workmen compensation insurance was not provided to cover stupidity or incompetents." Good to know.

Thinking Machine 4 can be found at http://turbulence.org/spotlight/thinking/index.html, with the Technical Standards Worst Manual Contest at http://www.techstandards.com/2004winner.htm.

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