History was made 20 years ago this week in 1996 when a computer beat a Grand Master at chess. Not just any Grand Master, but the then World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Indeed, some say that Kasparov is the greatest player ever.
Let me start with a groveling admission; and I hope I won’t be judged too harshly. I was a keen chess player as a kid. Aged about 10, I was invited to participate in what the chess world calls a “simultaneous exhibition,” which is where one Grand Master plays many, many games simultaneously. I was one of perhaps 100 games going on at the same time. After only fifteen or twenty moves, I was already in trouble. I decided (and I can’t believe I’m about to admit this) that I would cheat. I moved a pawn sideways, or a bishop in a straight line, or something. Here’s the funny thing: the Grand Master approached my board, looked for a nanosecond and immediately said “you can’t do that”. I sheepishly corrected the illegal move, he made his, and moved on. I lost, in more ways than one.
Let’s put chess and computer and person into perspective. Could a person with a PC and an Excel spreadsheet beat a Grand Master at chess? I wouldn’t have thought so. But what about 100 people with 100 PCs and 100 Excel spreadsheets? Could they win? Also no, surely – too hard to scale learnings, too hard to coordinate efforts, all kinds of reasons. The logical conclusion is then, that Deep Blue is better than a veritable army of analysts cranking away with all their might.
The 1975 update to Moore’s Law says that computing power doubles every two years. Thus, it would be expected that today’s supercomputers are 1000x the power of 20 years ago. It’s hard to make a direct comparison of the hardware running Deep Blue to the hardware on which PROS software runs in 2016, but it’s worth noting that in 2006, the midpoint between the Kasparov defeat and today, Deep Blue ran on a PC with two Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs — which I don’t believe would be considered cutting edge, even on the desktop today.
Thinking about the relative merits of a person and a computer is instructive today. Believe it or not, there are organizations — large organizations — that run business-critical functions using desktop computer operating systems. But let’s examine the continuum of what we’ve thought about today.
Grand Master > 100 Excel spreadsheets
IBM Deep Blue > Grand Master
PROS > IBM Deep Blue
There we have it. If you’re pricing in Excel, you’re very close to checkmate.
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