Computer Chess: Sex and Drugs

By Eric Vihlen

Computer Chess

Sex and drugs.

You can not judge a book by its cover, but this film is not what you would expect from the title.

Set in the 1980s, Computer Chess takes the viewer on a quirky, nostalgic stroll down the memory lane of the burgeoning science of computers and artificial intelligence, and the men — and a woman — who endeavor to make their computer as smart as a human. The film explores the objective limits of the known computer science universe, and the subjective realm of self-dicovery and group sex therapy.

Computer Chess places two impossible counterparts into the sub-plot of this strange adventure. The most obvious is the group of nerdy, computer sciencists who have come to the hotel for the chess match. The second group is a sex-therapy retreat that is very obviously incorporating LSD into their sessions. Members from the two groups cross paths throughout the film, a metaphor for the artificial universe of computers wandering around space looking for its sexual, flesh-and-blood human counterpart.

The entire movie takes place at a chess tournament in a non-descript motel in what felt like the boring part of the midwest somewhere. But the contestants are not human. They’re computers.

Groups of students from different colleges, some from Cal Tech and MIT, operate their computers with their individual respective chess strategy software, and let the matches play out to see the winner, and by extension, who had written the best and “smartest” software.

And this was pre-information age, and pre-internet. Before computers could create new operations contigent on actions from the input side, that is, before they could learn. Algorithms that recognize our keystrokes, and remember our favorite websites, are technologies we take for granted in the present day. All of those technologies evolved from the big, clunky metal boxes that up until the 1980s, whose software only did only computation and calculation.

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