I picked Engineering for no particular reason. I never had prior experience with building or coding. My school didn’t have anything close to 3-D printers…
This summer, in a bid to take my mind off the interminable tropical heat, I decided to teach myself chess.
Armed with a rudimentary grasp of how the pieces move around, I opened up a computer chess game. After five or six futile attempts at beating the computer, I slammed my laptop shut in a fit of exasperation and brooded for several minutes.
I clearly couldn't take on the toughest game level only knowing whether a piece moves orthogonally or diagonally.
Chess is a game considered to engage the highest of human intellectual capabilities. The elegant strategies, the intricate manoeuvres, and the odd creative gambles celebrate the triumph that is human intelligence. Thus, chess would be the ideal yardstick to measure just how smart and, in a manner, how human a machine can be.
That is why, forty years ago, there was a mad rush to build a computer program that could play chess. Your computer can’t play chess and beat a human at it? Then it’s probably not advanced enough to be considered artificially intelligent.
Except, computers eventually did beat us human players. And not just your average high school chess aficionado. In 1996, the IBM Deep Blue computer defeated the reigning world champion, and one of the greatest chess players of all time, Garry Kasparov.
Thus began a mad scramble to figure out a new measure of human intelligence, and by abstraction, of humanity itself. We homo sapiens are unique because of our superior minds. If the defining features of a human mind, its rationality and ingenuity, can be learned by a mass of electronic circuitry and then be used to beat a chess Grandmaster, surely that is not what defines us?
We have Siri and Cleverbot happily chatting away with curious - and perhaps somewhat lonely - human beings from across the globe. We have computer programs that write poetry and paint surreal electronic pictures. We have cars that drive themselves and robots that perform delicate brain surgery. So, if it’s not just our logic and our creativity, what is it that makes us human and them mere machines?
Perhaps it’s the way that when I finally beat my computer at a chess game some days later, it couldn’t slam itself shut in exasperation and brood about its incompetence.