There’s been some discussion lately about chess-playing software and intelligence. Some smart humans play chess well. Certain software can beat them at chess. Does this mean that the software is smarter than those humans? Of course not.
For one thing, intelligence is about versatility, about being able to perform innumerable different and unfamiliar tasks that take smarts. No software in the world, least of all chess software, is anywhere near passing the Turing test. If you talk to present-day software you soon become aware that there’s no intelligence in the box. If we came across a human that played kickass chess but had no other mental skills, we would classify her as severely retarded on the verge of brain death.
Secondly, intelligence is not simply about outcomes, it’s also about process. Chess-playing software doesn’t arrive at game decisions in the same way as a human player does. The software simply uses brute number-crunching force to calculate its chances of gaining an advantage with a certain move. Chess is a tightly bounded system where the number of possible situations is smallish and a player can make only a very small number of easily identified moves in each situation. Such a brute-force approach is useless for more intricate open-system games. Here, instead, the programmer has to establish rules-of-thumb for the software to follow, and it can never be any better at the game than the person who formulated those gaming methods.
I’ve seen this recently since I took up Civilization IV. This is an intricate game where the number of possible situations is astronomical. The game’s creators call their game-playing engine “an AI”, an artificial intelligence, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a collection of methods that allow the computer to offer adequate resistance to the player’s attempts at winning. But often, the methods make for mind-blowingly stupid game play.
In a Civ game recently, my country was invaded by a warlike neighbour who had somehow drummed up enormous numbers of troops. He sent them straight to my closest city. I responded by desperately sending almost all the defensive troops I had in my other cities to the besieged one, which I could do swiftly thanks to a railroad network I had just completed. The besieged border city was now extremely heavily defended. What did the invaders do? Did they perhaps split into a number of smaller forces and go off to find my other cities, forcing me to split my defenders too? Of course they immediately cut off my railroads at strategic points? Nope. They stayed where they were and threw themselves repeatedly against the border city until there wasn’t a single invader standing anymore.
But don’t think that Civilization is an easy game to win. To begin with, you may not know exactly how the game works, but the software does. And there are a number of levels of difficulty, ranging from the easy to the almost impossible. You might think that the difference between these difficulty levels would be how smart the software is. Sadly, no. The main difference lies in how much the software cheats.
In Civilization, when playing against the computer, you aren’t necessarily constrained by the same game rules as the software. This affects things such as how many troops you start with, how long it takes to train new troops and how fast your cities grow. Choosing a more difficult level doesn’t make your opponent smarter, it’s more like you’re assuming a lower handicap in golf. (The golf handicap system is, BTW, in my opinion completely pointless. It allows an unskilled golfer to “beat” a skilful one if he plays better in relationship to his own skill rank than the skilful one does in relationship to hers. But this really just means that one player’s handicap needs to be adjusted, leading to an infinite regress.) So when the computer beats you at Civ, it’s usually because the two of you aren’t really playing the same game.
I’d like to play Civ against other people one day. But a game that takes ten hours when most of the players are computer simulations would take a week if they were all human. Maybe at the old people’s home.
If the ecology doesn’t collapse first, we will have real AI one day. But it won’t sprout out of specialised game-playing software. It’ll arise as one of those elusive “emergent properties” that can be observed when a very large number of dumb particles with intricate communication capabilities are packed together in a convenient container — such as a human cranium.