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Man Wins… This Time

If he hadn’t lost the first game, world chess champion Garry Kasparov says, a false sense of security might have gotten him in trouble in last week’s historic man-versus-machine chess match against a massively parallel IBM SP supercomputer. On Saturday, Kasparov won the final game to take a 4-2 match victory over Deep Blue, when the computer conceded after 43 moves and three hours and 45 minutes of play.

At a panel last week about the next fifty years of computing, the director of the Cornell University Theory Center, physicist Malvin H. Kalos, said the evenly divided match shows "we are on the cusp" of what increasingly powerful computers can do. "In the past, no computer could beat the best human chess player. Now, the computer can play as well as the best human. Within the decade, no human will be able to beat a computer." Kalos added, "Humans with the tools will do much better than humans without the tools."

Kalos directs a national supercomputing facility at Cornell that houses a more elaborate version of the IBM SP supercomputer with 512 processors. He and other computer scientists took the opportunity on ENIAC’s 50th birthday last week to reflect on the past fifty years of computing innovation and to speculate on the next fifty. [ENIAC was the first general purpose electronic computer – see the URL below. -Geoff] "Fifty years ago, no one could have come anywhere close to predicting where computers are now. Just what’s in my laptop in power and memory was inconceivable back then. The transistor hadn’t even been invented, and to imagine millions of them on a chip just was not possible." Within fifty years, Kalos envisions adequate computing power and memory for a "personal brain clone," a computer so powerful it can simulate the human brain and learn along with its human counterpart.

The last several days have unearthed ironic quotes from the likes of IBM chairman Thomas Watson, who reportedly commented in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," and Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olson, who in 1977 expressed his doubts, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home," just as a new company, Apple Computer, began to prove him wrong.

Cornell’s Theory Center uses its 512-processor supercomputer (in fact one of only a handful in the world, but that’s not what Watson meant) to help solve Grand Challenge problems. These are worldwide conundrums identified by the federal government as requiring high-performance computing capabilities for solution. The system is funded primarily by Cornell, IBM, New York State, and the National Science Foundation, and is used by scientists in such areas as astrophysics, environmental science, biochemistry, and medical technology – when it’s not playing chess.

Kasparov, needing only a draw to win the match, played his last game with apparent determination to trounce Deep Blue and its ability to compute more than 200 million operations a second.

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