Winning is More Complex Than We Knew

And so, it turns out winning is more complicated than we knew. Vince Lombardi famously proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything — it’s the only thing.” What we’re learning now is that it’s a complex thing — if it’s a thing at all.

We’re discovering the concept’s latent complexity as we contemplate whether computers can teach other computers to win at chess or Go or any other strategy game. Programmers can input the rules of the game. That’s the easy part. What appears to be far more sophisticated is the concept of — and respect for — a game.

Without that appreciation, computers may become “free-range opponents,” seizing advantage anywhere they can. If the board pieces cannot be moved when it’s not your turn, what if the board is incinerated and the remnant ashes blow around? Where is it in the rules that the numbering system can’t be changed from Base-10 to Base-8? If there’s no time limit between moves, what if one non-human contestant waits until the sun dies out?

Prevailing at all costs is something less than winning. We call this lesser version “cheating” or “poor sportsmanship.” We can’t precisely define it, but everyone knows it when they see it.

Humans love sport for its clarity. It divides the victors from the vanquished, but it also joins them in their respect for and the history of the game. Ashton Eaton saw his world record in the decathlon broken this month and he cheered for the sport and the competitors yet to come. We cannot program such nobility into computers.

These fears have filled science fiction dystopia for decades, but now we’re about to set foot into driverless cars, trusting our lives to computer code. The truth is this is already happening — most airliners are piloted by computers most of the time.

The more frightening scenario may be the one we’re living right now. Amoral computers seem to be teaching humans how to prevail at any cost, by bending rules without breaking them.

Paul Manafort was recently sentenced to house arrest with a provision that he not send or receive emails. So he wrote emails but did not send them. Instead, he saved them in a computer folder that was shared over the Internet with others. They could then read his and deposit their own “unsent” emails.

When the judge learned of this and other tactics, she sent Manafort to jail. When his lawyer pleaded with the judge to articulate better the rules for home detention, she declined. The judge revoked Manafort’s bail because his actions constituted, in her words, “a danger to the court’s integrity” — not the rules of the game, but the gamesmanship of the rules.

Our legislative leaders in Washington are choosing prevailing over winning, and the game is suffering. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was trained as a boxer but became a street fighter in his last years leading the Senate. He altered the Senate’s filibuster rule by reinterpreting the Senate’s definition of a “day.”

Republicans have been only too happy to follow Reid’s lead, further curtailing the Senate’s traditions. As long as prevailing trumps winning, things will keep getting worse in every way.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.