Thursday, March 09, 2006

(136) Computer chess, long distance whale song and communication with Mars

On July 5th 1997 I had been reading from Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and had stopped at page 51 in Chapter 4.

It reads:

Another variant of this fallacy is ‘computers do not really play chess, because they can only do what a human operator tells them.’ It is important that we understand why this is fallacious, because it affects our understanding of the sense in which genes can be said to “control behaviour”. Computer chess is quite a good example for making the point, so I will discuss it briefly.
Computers do not yet play as well as human grand masters, but they have reached the standard of a good amateur...

It is in fact an exceedingly difficult problem, and it is hardly surprising that the best programs have still not achieved grand master status.
The programmer’s actual role is rather more like that of a father teaching his son to play chess. He tells the computer the basic moves of the game... The important point is this. When it is actually playing, the computer is on its own, and can expect no help from its master. All the programmer can do is set the computer up beforehand in the best way possible, with a proper balance between lists of specific knowledge, and hints about strategies and techniques.
The genes too control the behaviour of their survival machines, not directly with their fingers on puppet strings, but indirectly like the computer programmer. All they can do is to set up beforehand; then their survival machine is on its own, and the genes can only sit passively inside. Why are they so passive? Why don’t they grab the reins and take charge from moment to moment? The answer is that they cannot because of time-lag problems.


He then draws a comparison with a science fiction story by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot, The Andromeda Strain.

The Andromedans inhabit a system many light years from Earth, and they wish to expand their empire. The limitations imposed by the speed of light and of Radio communication mean that it will take two hundred years for messages to arrive, so it is not possible for an advance colonising force to arrive somewhere and then communicate back with the home civilisation.

Dawkins points out that this problem may soon present itself to us for real, for it takes about four minutes for radio communication between Earth and Mars. Presumably astronauts there would have to get used to communicating in large chunks of speech - almost like sending a letter.
And he then suggests that if, as may be feasible, whales communicate with each other over vast distances of ocean, then they may find themselves in the same predicament.
A whale transmitting song across the Atlantic would need two hours to send out and receive a reply.
He suggests, perhaps, that this is why some whales send out the same message, of up to eight minutes, over and over.

So the Andromedans hit upon another method. They continually broadcast the same, massive unbroken message out into space, over and over again, with each cycle lasting several months.

Picked up by the Jodrell Bank radio telescope their message is eventually decoded.
It is instructions for how to construct a massive computer.
This is then done, and the computer sets about establishing a dictatorship of the world before it gets destroyed.

All instructions for their computer had to be programmed in by the Andromedans in advance, because of the two hundred year barrier.

In principle it must have been like a chess-playing programme.

And just as the Andromedans had to have a computer on earth to take day-to-day decisions for them, so our genes have to have a brain.

Like the Andromedans, the genes can only do their best in advance by building for themselves a computer - a brain - and programming it in advance with rules and ‘advice’ to cope with as many eventualities as they can ‘anticipate’.

But life, like the game of chess, offers too many different eventualities for all of them to be anticipated.
Like the chess programmer, the genes have to ‘instruct’ their survival machines not in specifics, but in the general strategies and tricks of the living trade.

Later that day I asked my wife what the strange music was that she had playing and she explained that that day she had spotted a compact disc of soothing whale songs and had bought it as an aid to lulling the baby to sleep.

The Selfish Gene was published in 1976, the year of the original Viking Mars landing.

On the day that I read this passage, July 5th 1997, the U.S.A. had landed another probe there and fresh pictures were beamed back.

And a few months earlier in 1997 an event had occurred that some people had placed in the same epoch-making category as the climbing of Everest or the first moon landing, when the IBM super computer Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion Gary Kasparov, regarded by many, including myself, as the best player ever.

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