The Spark: The King’s Pawn

In 1997, world chess champ Gary Kasparov went head-to-head with the computer Deep Blue in a much-discussed match. Kasparov lost, leading to a flurry of discussion surrounding the possibilities of computer intelligence.

Jonah Bleicher’s 2012 Sloan Production Award-winning short film The King’s Pawn presents a fictionalized version of a similar matchup. A former chess master, Martin, who has been “training” a computer for years, comes up against his old nemesis in a televised competition. In close consultation with his scientific advisor, Eli Vovsha, who is both a computer scientist and a chess expert and played a very hands-on role in the production, Bleicher tried to create a film that, as he says, “Even people in the know wouldn’t watch and say, ‘Oh, come on, that’s not how it really works.’”

Below are edited excerpts from Sloan Science and Film’s conversation with Mr. Bleicher.

SF: How did you first become interested in computers competing with humans on the chessboard?

JB: I remember the original events of Kasparov versus Deep Blue; I was in high school when it happened. It occurred to me that it’s as exciting as a boxing match between two opponents, except it’s a game of minds. It’s more exciting to have a machine show intelligence instead of brawn in a duel with a human.

SF: Thanks to Martin, your protagonist, who is entering the computer’s moves, you have a situation in the film where two humans are competing as well.

JB: When I first decided to take a stab at this, the obvious choice was to have the human chess master be the protagonist, as is usually the case in stories like this. In science fiction movies when people are battling machines, you’re siding with the humans who are trying to survive. But I thought that was sort of an obvious approach.

I started reading about the team that developed the computer and realized these are humans just as much as the people on the other side. They’re exceptional in other ways and are sort of unsung heroes. I found that story to be a lot more interesting than just a computer battling a human. Reading more about these people, I realized there’s a lot of drama there. So I wanted to focus on the guy behind the computer, since the computer itself doesn’t really have a personality.

SF: Can you talk a little about the research you did to prepare for the film?

JB: I read Behind Deep Blue, by the main guy who designed Deep Blue, Feng-hsiung Hsu. There’s a big conspiracy theory where Kasparov claimed that the humans [behind Deep Blue] might have cheated. That led me to read this guy’s work. Obviously he had a very defensive agenda because a lot of people believed that IBM cheated, and there’s an arrogance to him. Hsu’s more represented in the film by Martin’s boss because he was purely an engineer and for him there was no art to it.

But when I started reading about the process, they had former champions training the computer in chess. And I thought, that’s interesting: what if this former prodigy that didn’t end up quite making it gets another chance at that title through the computer? So Martin is based on a few people in real life.
Our science advisor, Eli Vovsha, was both a computer scientist—a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University—and a chess master and former chess champion. The kind of thinking that leads to excellence in chess I think also often leads to excellence in the computer sciences. So it made perfect sense that that would be the path of a guy like Martin. He’s forty now, he thought he would be a champion but was overshadowed his whole life, and this is his last chance at glory.

SF: Martin isn’t totally sympathetic at first, but watching him interact with the computer brings out a very sympathetic aspect in him.

JB: It was a challenge to make him sympathetic because he’s passive and he cheats!

SF: It’s an interesting twist that he cheats, because the human and the computer are sort of a team at that point.

JB: Weirdly enough, one of my early inspirations was actually Iron Man. In a world where there are super heroes, there’s this unfair advantage: You’re either born that way or thrown into a nuclear facility and suddenly you’re superhuman. To compete in that arena this normal guy builds a special suit. In a way, Martin is like Iron Man. He’s trying to build that computer to allow him to compete in world-level chess.

In terms of the cheating, mostly what’s remembered about the real match in 1997 are those allegations. And of course, today it’s no longer relevant whatsoever because even if there was some foul play, within a few years a computer would have won anyway.

What Kasparov was arguing was that playing a computer took a very different strategy. You’re not playing the same way as if you were playing a human. It’s a very psychological game. There’s a lot of poker to it where you’re trying to read your opponent, and when you’re playing a computer you can’t use that. The computer’s completely unaffected by psychological warfare. So people talk about how they had to learn how a computer plays chess.

Specifically, that one move where [Martin] cheats in the movie, there was a similar thing in the original matchup. Kasparov said, “I refuse to believe that a computer came up with that move because this is not the way a computer thinks.”

SF: How much would Kasparov have understood that distinction?

JB: Well, it wasn’t his first time. First of all, he won the year before; it was a rematch. And he’d been playing computers for ten, fifteen years. And just like any other sport where people are watching videos of their opponents and training, that’s true for chess as well. He prepared for that match a lot.

SF: As you said before, in science fiction, you often end up rooting against the technology. It’s interesting because I think a lot of science fiction writers are inspired by a love of technology, but when it comes down to actually writing the story, they end up arguing against it.

JB: Right, there’s a human fear of the unknown. Whatever is beyond our grasp is threatening to us. I came of age in the nineties and I remember paranoia from tech was so heightened during that time from Y2K and all of that stuff. It seems sort of silly in hindsight but it was such a real thing at the time. I wanted to satirize it a little bit.

SF: Now there’s that computer that they’re saying passed the Turing test.

JB: I think the debate still is very much ongoing. They keep talking about artificial intelligence, robots are coming back into the conversation more and more today. There are robots in combat, drones and those things. I think there’s still an innate fear and it’s not completely unwarranted, you know? It all comes down to Frankenstein, or even before, the Tower of Babel—cautionary tales about humans overreaching.

There is something to be said about humans having this capacity to create tools that are much greater than themselves or their understanding and therefore competing with whatever’s out there. Some people call it God or the forces of physics, but whatever it is there does seem to be a weird competition between it and our species.

SF: Did your research change your ideas about artificial intelligence?

JB: Not really. It was almost disappointing to learn that Deep Blue was actually a pretty simple mechanism. It employed what they call brute force processing, which is more speed, more speed, more crunching of numbers. So really what I learned in terms of the computer wasn’t all that impressive. It was sort of like, oh, it’s just a really advanced calculator.

SF: Why do you think people are so specifically interested in computers competing with people at chess? It really seems to get under people’s skin.

JB: Chess is such an ancient game. It has such a reputation as being a one-to-one representation of human intelligence. I think there’s no game that’s more iconic when describing what human excellence is. That’s the last thing humans had over machines, in a way. Obviously machines are stronger and faster—you can’t run faster than a car or a jet or something. Intelligence was sort of the last frontier, and I think that’s why it captured the imagination so much.

SF: You have the chess master in the film make those arguments—but then he loses.

JB: As a viewer of films, I’m very against having just one point of view from the filmmaker. I feel it’s very preachy. So what I try to do is present the different arguments around an issue and let people wrestle with the question rather than provide an answer.

SF: There are still computer scientists trying to beat humans at Go, the last game humans still win on a regular basis when facing machines.

JB: I feel like that debate is over. Deep Blue, the computer itself, was such a force to reckon with. And I read somewhere that any iPhone in our pockets today is more powerful than Deep Blue. Technology advances so quickly, there’s something really tragic about it. I think that Deep Blue is now sitting in a museum in D.C. It so quickly went from being this fearsome, nightmarish thing to becoming a relic of the past. This is a historical movie, but it takes place only a few years ago.

SF: The computer has a very physical presence in your film.

JB: Computers then weren’t how we think of them today. There were whole rooms full of servers. I wanted the challenge of Martin being so stuck and detached—not even being able to face his opponent. Early on with the script, people tried to convince me to have him sit across from the world champion, but I wanted him to be a prisoner, out in that world of computers that at some points seems like it might be his savior—his Iron Man suit—but then becomes his prison.

SF: Yes, at one point Martin refers to himself as the computer’s intern, but at other times they seem to be working together. He shifts back and forth between resenting and appreciating its presence. It’s the same with so much of technology.

JB: Yes, on the one hand, I’m so grateful for technology as an artist, as a filmmaker. I used to be an animator and a painter. I say that once I discovered Photoshop, I never touched oil paints again. It’s so much better on the one hand, but on the other hand, I find that I’m often becoming a slave to technology, with social media, with endless options. Sometimes it does make you nostalgic. When you have so many tools and the tools are so powerful it can be overwhelming, and also it can overshadow human excellence. In photography, for example, you look at Instagram and every Joe Schmoe is an incredible photographer. It’s always a double-edged sword, I think. It’s a good thing, we shouldn’t shy away from the unknown, and those tools are going to lead to greatness. But it’s not without frustration and fear. It almost feels quaint, though, that the Kasparov match was such a big deal. That everyone now has a more powerful processor in their pocket than Deep Blue does make it feel kind of ridiculous