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Make that "check," not "checkmate"

On the eve of the five-year anniversary of a seminal chess match between man and computer, CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the outcome mattered less than what it suggests for the potential for more, not less, computer innovation.

As fate would have it, May 11 marks the five-year anniversary of the ballyhooed chess match in which Deep Blue, IBM's chess-playing supercomputer, defeated the then world champ, Garry Kasparov.

A lot of ink got spilled in the aftermath of that stunner--some of the more breathless commentary recoiling in horror at the prospect of a thinking computer actually besting a thinking human being--horror of horrors!

But Deep Blue wasn't really thinking so much as it was a superfast computer. And the fact that a machine was able to knock off a grand master was less a harbinger of an R.U.R.-like future, where robots rule, than a statement about the results of the intelligent application of computer technology.

IBM's technical achievement offered a comforting statement about the potential for other nifty commercial deployments of computer science.
Even further, IBM's technical achievement offered a comforting statement about the potential for other nifty commercial deployments of computer science. I was reminded of Deep Blue as one of the smarter people I've come to know over the years was bemoaning what he depicted as a technology dead end in the computer industry. What was worse, he suggested, this state of affairs marked more than just a dismal interlude. He was worried about this being the final coda on real innovation in the computer industry.

In a tongue-in-cheek note sent earlier this week, he said he could now reveal the real story about why the technology industry remained stuck in the doldrums: It was all because the Dallas Mavericks are now a realistic NBA title contender.

"Not to single out (Mavericks owner and former Broadcast.com CEO) Mark Cuban, who made a smart deal (selling his company to Yahoo) and walked away," my interlocutor wrote, "but at some point, the world of technology turned away from the business of making great products and improving people's lives to making big piles of instant money."

Joking aside, he was trying to make a larger point about the wheel of innovation falling off during the madness of the dot-com gold rush. I'll grant the point, but history still leaves me feeling a lot more optimistic about the future. Consider the following:

My first-ever "portable" was a 20-something-pound Zenith (remember them?) that would have given Arnold Schwarzenegger a hernia.
Upon returning each year from one more deathly dull Comdex show, people would invariably ask what was hot and exciting in Vegas. And my ritual response was, "Outside of the strip shows, not much. Just smaller, faster, cheaper." Jaded, me! I totally underestimated how the cumulative effect of these incremental advances added up. In fact, over a five- or 10-year clip, they accounted for quite astonishing progress. You just needed some perspective.

For instance, my first-ever "portable" was a 20-something-pound Zenith (remember them?) that would have given Arnold Schwarzenegger a hernia. Only a few years later, my work computer was a feather-light Toshiba Portege notebook.

It may sometimes seem as if nothing great is left to invent, but the experience of the last couple of decades proves otherwise. So it was that 1993 was a big bore, but a year later the world was head over heels about the Internet.

Do you really think it's going to all stop there?

Not me. In fact, I'm willing to wage that some bright bulb out there will eventually make good on the conceptions of the late, great MIT computer science professor Michael Dertouzos for reforming the way humans interact with PCs. And that's the sort of advance that would surely open the floodgates.

There's still more time on the clock before the final punch-out. Make that "check," and not "checkmate."