No Winners Possible in Bush's Game of War

"The game is over," says Bush about Iraq. What game? Hide & Seek? Cowboys & Indians? Oil & Evil? Saddam & George?

Twenty years ago, when we first had C-64s and believed they would miraculously transform our lives, I attended a demonstration of the powers and limitations of computers by Jon Secaur, physics teacher at Kent Roosevelt High School.

I watched as he scrolled through the BASIC program for the centerpiece of his presentation, a game of "Twenty Questions". The program was only about 30 lines long, and I asked him how it could be so short. He answered with an enigmatic smile.

With the audience of adult professionals assembled he began: "You know the rules -- we can ask twenty yes-or-no questions to try to guess what the object is. I'll type each question into the computer and put a question mark at the end. Can you see the screen? I don't want anyone to think this is a trick, or that I know what object the computer will come up with. I don't know, and I didn't even give the computer a list of objects to choose from. Ready? Okay, first question."

Is it alive? NO

Is it bigger than a breadbox? YES

Would you have one in your house? NO

Is it green? NO

Does it make a loud noise? NO

Is it heavy? YES

Is it a car? NO

Is it a trolley? YES

Cheers, cries of "Amazing!" and "How did it do that?" I was puzzled -- I couldn't figure out what was really happening.

We played a second game and never got a single YES in twenty questions.

"Ask it what it was," demanded one observer. "I can't do that," admitted Secaur, "it can only answer YES or NO."

"Well, couldn't you program it so it would tell?" "Not really," he replied. "But let's try it one more time."

Is it smaller than a breadbox? YES

Is it a baby? YES

So what was really happening? The BASIC program was just a few IF-THEN statements: IF the question mark is preceded by the letter x, y , z , j, or q, THEN print YES. If it's any other letter, THEN print NO.

No object or noun was ever "chosen" by the program, and hence, as in the second game, there was no way to ask what the object was. The game existed entirely in the minds of the players.

What really happened was that once we determined that the object we were seeking was not alive, we stopped asking about living things. After being told the object was bigger than a breadbox, we only asked about things bigger than breadboxes. Each question we asked narrowed our conceptual fields and successively shut down whole categories of possible answers. We believed we were closing in on our prey, when in fact, there was no prey.

Though the breadbox question was answered YES for both "larger than" and "smaller than", we assumed that a different object was chosen for each game, not exactly a wrong assumption. A different object was selected, but not by the computer, and not until the game was "won" by us.

It's true the computer and the humans were not playing the same game. But that's hardly remarkable: participants in most games have differing notions of what the game is, what the rules are, what they are doing by playing it, and "what really happens" in the game.

In the story, "Trurl's Machine" by Stanislaus Lem (in "The Cyberiad") Trurl the constructor builds an 8-story-high thinking-machine. When he asks the ritual first question, "How much is two plus two?" the machine cogitates noisily for a few minutes and angrily bellows "Seven." Trurl's efforts to adjust it only make it madder.

His friend Klapaucius observes that not only is this the stupidest thinking-machine ever invented, it is also "sensitive, dense, stubborn and quick to take offense," whereupon the machine sets out to kill the humans, pursuing them across the countryside. In the end, the machine's efforts to enforce its truth that 2+2=7 triggers an avalanche that crushes it, but not before it has destroyed a village of innocent people.

* * *

These are cautionary tales. We must be careful when playing games with a system without knowing what it's programmed to do. George Bush's Game of Iraq is just a few IF-THEN statements: IF the question is "Iraq", THEN the answer is "WAR", IF the inspectors find anthrax, THEN the answer is WAR; IF they don't find anthrax, THEN the answer is WAR. It doesn't matter what game we think we are playing, this is what the huge calculator of the Bush administration is programmed to play

We must be even more wary when the most powerful nation on earth builds a giant thinking-machine that insists that Terrorism + War = Peace.

The game isn't over. The more the world understands Bush's Game of Iraq, the less anyone wants to play, and it looks like a lot of our friends would like to take their marbles and go home.

But the monstrous machine that would use unspeakably violent weapons to achieve its ends may already be out of the control of those who constructed it.

And it's not science-fiction.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.