MAN VS. MACHINE….WHO CARES, ANYWAY?….Josh Chafetz wonders why so many people are interested in all these man vs. computer chess matches, and he makes a good point: what’s the big deal if a computer is better than a human at chess? After all, computers are already better at humans when it comes to, say, calculating a multiple regression or keeping track of millions of web pages.

And there’s more: computers are already better than every single chess player in the world except for maybe three or four. And since chess is a self-contained game with very specific rules and a limited number of pieces, the real surprise is that computers didn’t start outplaying humans decades ago. In fact, in 1959 some of the first chess computer programmers predicted that a chess computer would be world chess champion before 1970.

But aside from the fact that lots of computer programmers are also chess fans, the real reason for the ongoing interest is probably that Alan Turing, father of artificial intelligence and inventor of the Turing test, was a (mediocre) chess player himself and predicted in 1945 that one day computers would play “very good chess.” In the early days of computing, when hopes for artificial intelligence were higher than they are now, chess was considered an interesting problem that was a step on the road to true AI. In fact, the “chess Turing test” was often used as an example of a limited ? but meaningful ? Turing test.

Needless to say, no one believes this anymore ? in fact, Noam Chomsky once said that a computer beating a grandmaster at chess was about as interesting as a bulldozer winning an Olympic weight-lifting competition. But the interest lives on, perhaps for nostalgic reasons more than anything. After all, John Henry had an entire legend built around his loss to a steam drill, and surely a chess playing computer is at least as interesting as a steam-powered drill?