By Tom Anderson
The game of chess has captured the human imagination perhaps more than any other. Chess probably originated in India at some point before AD 500, and spread across the Old World (often via Iran), with different cultures applying their own local variations. Christian Europe swapped out India’s elephants for bishops, and changed the vizier (prime minister) piece to a queen; China replaced the king with a general, allegedly because of an emperor who was concerned about peasants playing a game in which they could commit regicide. (Moral panics over the impact of games on their players’ real-life behaviour long predate the invention of videogames!) The game spread worldwide, with the European version becoming the standard chess used today, though the variants played in China, Japan, Korea and so on survive as separate games.
The success of chess is largely because it is simple enough to be learned by a child in a few days, yet has sufficient strategic depth that it can be studied to a grandmaster level and be subject to epic, high-stakes games. Indeed, a popular trope in folklore and fiction is the idea of a man playing chess with Death to decide whether he will live or die. It was inevitable, perhaps, that someone would eventually speculate about the idea of a machine, a computer mind, being able to compete with and defeat human chess players. Because being a skilful chess player is often treated as shorthand for vast intelligence, such a contest becomes more broadly symbolic of the human excitement and dread felt at the rise of artificial intelligence. This is an old idea; it predates the United States! In 1770 Wolfgang von Kempelen demonstrated his ‘Mechanical Turk’ to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, supposedly an automaton capable of playing chess against human players. ‘The Turk’ proved very popular and faced many nobles and skilled chess players, though being defeated by the most skilled chess player of the day, François-André Danican Philidor, in 1793. In fact ‘The Turk’ was a hoax, controlled by a concealed operator, but the seed had been sown for the idea of a real contest against artificial intelligence once technology had caught up. Fiction continued to play with the idea, a late example being an episode of the 1960s Star Trek (which introduced a fictional futuristic three-dimensional chessboard), “Court Martial”, in which Mr Spock proves that the Enterprise’s computer has been tampered with because he has successfully beaten it at chess, which given the computer’s capabilities should be impossible.
Even people thoroughly uninterested in chess usually know something of how this dream was finally realised, in 1997, when Garry Kasparov—a Russian grandmaster considered by some to be the greatest chess player of all time—was defeated by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. The match captured the public imagination and was even the subject of movies. It led to much soul-searching on the subject of artificial intelligence overtaking humanity—despite the fact that many other games continued to daunt computers, and the Chinese game ‘Go’ in particular has proven much more difficult for A.I.s to outmatch skilled human players, even in the 2010s.
Given everything that has been said above, it seems almost inevitable there would eventually have been a high-profile chess contest between a dedicated chess-playing computer and a chess grandmaster in which the former defeated the latter. However, we can use our knowledge of historical consequences to prove that the exact circumstances of the OTL match only came about because of some small, apparently trivial happenings in seemingly unrelated fields of interest.
Premiering in 1969, the British surreal sketch comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus needs no introduction. Curiously enough, perhaps because many of its fans went on to work in information technology, the show had several impacts on computing besides the one we will discuss here: the name ‘spam’ for junk emails comes from a sketch of the same name, and the Python programming language is also named for Monty Python. However, here we shall focus on the fact that Graham Chapman of the Pythons discovered a struggling writer named Douglas Adams in 1974, thanks to the latter appearing in a live West End production of the University of Cambridge’s Footlights Revue (which went on to produce an enormous part of the comedians and comedy actors of years to come). Adams contributed writing credits to the final series of Flying Circus and appeared in minor roles in a few sketches. While his contributions were modest, this was the break he had been waiting for, and ultimately led to his best-known work, three years later in 1977—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Originally a radio series, it later spawned a series of novels, a TV series and (after Adams’ untimely death) a film, all of which with frustratingly (and deliberately) incompatible continuities. The unique combination of science fiction and surreal, often black comedy captured the imagination of many and inspired many other writers. It would take many articles to list all the references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide in other media: the titular in-universe Guide may even have inspired Wikipedia (and an internet version, www.h2g2.com, predates it).
Many influences on history therefore bloom outwards from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, then, but we will focus on just one. A few years earlier in 1972, the American pornographic film Deep Throat had made a big impact due to its unusually high production values. This led to open discussion of such usually taboo matters by the American upper classes, including the fact that mainstream celebrities had admitted to watching it. Some such celebrities inlcuded big names such as Jack Nicholson, Frank Sinatra—and even sitting vice-president Spiro Agnew. Continuing with the political theme, the film’s pop-culture impact was such that in the 1972-4 period when Agnew’s boss Richard Nixon was fighting a losing battle against the Watergate allegations, Howard Simons (editor of The Washington Post) used ‘Deep Throat’ as a code name for an inside informant on the case (who eventually turned out to be assistant FBI director W. Mark Felt).
Whether because of the original pornographic film or Simons’ invoking of it in the high-profile Watergate affair, Douglas Adams chose to add a punning reference to the name Deep Throat in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of the book’s plot involves an extradimensional civilisation who seek to build a supercomputer to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Their supercomputer gets dubbed ‘Deep Thought’. To cut a long story short, answering the Ultimate Question takes seven and a half million years and the answer turns out to be ‘42’, which just raises further questions.
Feng-hsiung Hsu, a Taiwanese-born computer scientist, began his graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University on computer chess in 1985. His work led to the first computer that ever defeated a grandmaster (Bent Larsen in 1988), though it was still easily defeated by Kasparov in 1989. This computer was named in honour of Adams’ fictional one—Deep Thought. Hsu then joined the computing giant IBM, who began work on a successor machine (fittingly, given that the fictional Deep Thought’s story in The Hitchhiker’s Guide ends with it recommending its creators build a superior computer to find out what the Ultimate Question actually was). The ‘Deep’ theme naming was kept, and the supercomputer born from the project was dubbed Deep Blue. And the rest is history.
And so we can see that, while Graham Chapman’s discovery of a struggling British comedy writer and the near-simultaneous creation of an American pornographic film was not the cause of a computer beating the world’s premier chess grandmaster, they are the reasons why it happened in the exact, iconic way it did in our timeline. Without the inspiration of Adams’ iconic fictional creation, might the creation of a supercomputer have been delayed? Would it be a chess player other than the well-known Kasparov who fell to the might of silicon, and in a manner that less captured the public imagination? Once again, we see how so many things in history turn on chance occurrences in seemingly unrelated fields.