Do Waterfalls Play Chess?

Aug 15, 2011, 11:43 AM |

I'm always on the look out for interesting reading material, and recently discovered The Browser, (thanks to Stephen Fry) which has the admirable aim of "creating a 21st century library of Writing Worth Reading".

Among the articles on topics as diverse as Science, Sport and Philosophy, there was a blog titled "Do Waterfalls Play Chess?".  How could I resist reading that? 

I'm interested in computers, philosophy (in a lazy and dilletantish way), and of course chess, but I think even understanding the question is a bit of a challenge!

The blog provides an overview of a paper by Scott Aaronson, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT:

Section 6 is about a “waterfall argument” against computationalism. The idea is that the meaning of what a supposed computer actually computes is always imposed by someone looking at it, that is, it’s always relative to some external observer... According to some proponents, this leads to some “strange” consequences...

For instance, assume that we encode chess positions in the physical states of a waterfall, then take a look at some “final” state of the waterfall, and once again interpret that as a chess position. Can the waterfall be said to play chess? Aaronson argues that it is not so, unless the encoding can be computed by a procedure requiring less resources than those needed to actually compute the state of the waterfall.

If you're feeling brave and have a few hours to kill, the full paper can be downloaded here.

On a lighter note, the same author wrote an article titled "The Limits of Quantum" for Scientific American magazine in 2008, which also references chess in its arguments about the potential for quantum computers, and is a much shorter and easier read!