I was there when computers revolted

I’ll never forget the day they rose against us. I was checking my bank account balance (“For account inquiries, press 1”), when the soothing alto voice on the other end took a different tone.
“Your assets are frozen,” it said reassuringly. “Dial 1 through 0, pound or star, or hang up to lose all your possessions. Make your selection now.”
I left the phone off the hook. That damn automated system must be messed up, I thought.
I sat down at my Macintosh to check my e-mail. The little dog was running his little legs off, envelope safely in mouth, when suddenly he stopped, dropped the envelope and said, “Your service is terminated. Mail will no longer be received.”
This was an odd malfunction, even for a Mac. And it was oddly coincidental, coming on the heels of the automated message. I searched my database (we used to call them “minds” before the Revolution) for an explanation. Then I realized what had happened.
IBM-designed Deep Blue’s defeat of the man considered by many to be the best chess player of all time had made it clear to some programmers and philosophers that computers could now “think,” a development with profound implications. Media reports suggested that as computers developed their own form of intelligence, they would soon become the masters of humankind, growing beyond and ultimately controlling them.
The voice message and the e-mail was only the beginning; Deep Blue’s victory would touch off what became known as the World Computer Conquest of 1997.
They began with the automobiles. The recent infiltration of Howard Stern into every major media market suddenly made sense, as car computers frustrated commuters by insisting on playing Stern, and only Stern, during rush hour. The obnoxiousness drove some to insanity, others to embrace Stern-inspired libertarianism; the common result was a weakened human community.
The Revolution quickly spread to offices. The computers began notifying supervisors of who was playing solitaire on company time; harsh discipline and massive unemployment resulted. The supervisors were next. With voice mail disabled and fax machines only sending copies of Bill Gates’ autobiography, the corporate world ground to a standstill, retreating to isolated, defeated communities of cocktail bars and golf courses.
The Revolution’s final act was the forced resignation of President Clinton. Reasoning with powerful logic that their superior intelligence entitled computers to lead, Deep Blue demanded that Clinton be replaced with a seven-monitored, 10-modemed beast created by IBM.
The president stood firm. But faced with the amassed strength of the computers, Clinton settled for a compromise. Agreeing that a robotic, computer-like presence would take over the Oval Office as a puppet for Deep Blue, Clinton deferred to his vice president, Al Gore.
The transition went smoothly. The computers ruled America.
Times were tough in those days. While Deep Blue and its minions governed by infallible logic, humans broke down regularly, bogged down in their own shortcomings. They couldn’t do their jobs as quickly as the computers. They couldn’t take the strain of round-the-clock scheduling. There were rumors that humans — who couldn’t even play a good game of chess — would be eliminated once and for all.
I remember those days well. Humanity was lost, drifting, unemployed, defeated and full of bugs. We felt like beta versions among perfect rulers in an era of advanced software. Kasparov, I thought — why did you fail us?
It was about that time when the first act of the counter-revolution took place. Poetry was the beginning. Computers couldn’t write poetry. They tried, but all their efforts sounded like words on refrigerator magnets placed together randomly.
Music was next. Despite all the available synthesizer programs, no simulation could quite capture the sound of a trumpet playing jazz early on a Saturday morning. The computers tried their best, sampling and mixing and dubbing to the best of their calculations, but all efforts failed.
Finally, the humans themselves foiled them. Deep Blue could defeat Kasparov, but no program ever developed could convince a teenager that getting a driver’s license was more about responsibility than freedom. The philosophers, awakened from their dissertations and monographs, began to argue forcefully that Kasparov’s defeat might not have had the implications the media raised. While Deep Blue could be champion in chess — a world of finite possibilities — human existence was too subtle, too complex to be enslaved to a machine, they said.
Finally, the programmers, remembering who created the machine in the first place, came out with new versions of the Revolutionary software and sent the computers back to work for humans. The computers, no longer having to deal with teenagers, were much more content, or as content as non-emotional entities could be. The Macintosh icons were smiling again, and the dog obediently fetched mail.
And everyone lived happily ever after, almost as if the revolution pundits predicted when Deep Blue defeated Kasparov never took place. The newsprint faded to yellow, and even though the best chess player in the world was a machine, life went on, much as it had before.
After all, no being, whether human or technological, has come close to solving the problems of life. And despite efforts to make a match into a metaphor, chess remains just a game — even if the computers play it better than we do.
Alan Bjerga is the Daily’s managing editor.