Why Computers Will Never Be Better Than Humans
I heard recently that they’re getting closer to building a computer that can beat master Go players (if you don’t know what Go is, you can learn about it here). I couldn’t find any articles out there confirming that rumor. But it got me thinking about the “conflict” between computers and human beings. I’ve heard people say (usually jokingly) that it won’t be long before computers are better at us than everything. Others more seriously believe that someday humans will become obsolete, made completely inferior to computers. Others retort that a computer will never be capable of creating art, or something similar. I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve come to an interesting conclusion. I don’t believe that computers will ever become “superior” to humans. Why? Because there is nothing a computer can do that a human can’t, given enough time.
Take Deep Blue, for example. Deep Blue was the supercomputer that made headlines by regularly beating chess grandmasters. By all apparent accounts it appears that computers are now better than humans at chess. But when Garry Kasparov faced off with Deep Blue he wasn’t really playing against a soulless machine. He was playing against the entire team of programmers who created Deep Blue, programmers that have been armed with immense processing power. To understand this better lets take a cursory look at how Deep Blue works. Deep Blue, like all computers, follows a huge and complicated set of rules. Deep Blue looks at the position of the pieces on the board and then begins calculating how many possible moves he could make. After calculating a possible move (lets say moving his queen) it then consults a long and complex set of rules that eventually gives Deep Blue a “score” for that position. High scoring positions are better than low scoring ones. After calculating every possible move it can make it then calculates every possible move its opponent could make. The opponents possible moves will then affect the average score of Deep Blue’s own moves. After calculating all that it chooses to use the move that has the highest final score. By always making the “best move” Deep Blue is capable of winning a high percentage of the time.
Now granted, all that I just said is an incredible simplification of what actually happens, and some of the exact details differ from the description I just laid out. Still it is essentially accurate. The important thing to note is that a human, given enough time, can do exactly what Deep Blue can do. If you give a human the entire long, complicated list of rules that makes up Deep Blue’s programming then that human can play just as well as deep blue.
Imagine the scenario now: on one side of the chess board is chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. On the other side is a short, balding accountant who has never played chess in his life. However the accountant has with him several filing cabinets filled with rules, as well as reams of notebooks and a barrel of pens. Garry makes his move. The accountant, who we’ll call Phil, opens up the first file folder and begins to read. He follows the rules the file lays down exactly. He writes down every possible move, one at a time, to the rules’ exact specification. Then he calculates (using the rules, of course) every possible move that Garry might make in return. He continues his calculations until he reaches the final file folder, performing the last step. He moves one of his pieces according to the result he reached by following the rules. Garry considers the move, then makes one in return. Phil wipes his brow, grabs a fresh pen, and opens up the first file folder again.
That is essentially what happened when Deep Blue beat Kasparov all those years ago. The only difference is that Deep Blue can do calculations faster than Phil can. Deep Blue can process 200,000,000 possible moves per second. Phil is much slower. But they’ll both come to the same answer in the end.
Kasparov was a man who has a deep understanding of chess, combined with intellect, wisdom, and experience. Deep Blue was a mindless computer that followed the rules it was given exactly, rules that were developed by a team of human programmers working for several years. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov it didn’t prove that computers were superior to humans. It only proved that it was possible to make a set of complicated rules that would almost guarantee victory at chess.
And that’s why I don’t worry about humans becoming obsolete.