Friday, July 20, 2007

a challenge not an impossibility

An article in the New York Times this morning (A Champion at Checkers That Cannot Lose to People" by Kenneth Chang)described a computer program called Chinook developed by scientists at the University of Alberta, Canada, that plays perfect checkers. No human being, or sophisticated computer either, could ever achieve better than a draw against Chinook. In other words checkers as a mathematical problem with a limited number of solutions (500 billion billion) has been solved.

To solve the mathematical problem of checkers required 18 years of work by Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer. That's a big challenge, but possible, and therefore a worthwhile undertaking leading to growth and deepening, and fun. The result, though has been to transform the actual game of checkers, at least when played against Chinook, into an impossibility. it's not really a game any more. You can play against Chinook online. But's it's not really "play" any more. And after you curiosity has been satisfied there's no need to try again.

We want experiences that challenge our abilities. We want our skills to be tested, and therefore expanded, and losing is OK too, but there's little use in experiences actually beyond our abilities. Experiences where our personal nature, or the nature of the task itself includes no possibility of success. It's not just that we get bored and frustrated at tasks beyond our scope, it's that such tasks shut down our lives instead of opening them up. There are lessons to learn in failure, but one of the most important is to learn who we are and who we are not: what the universe is calling us to be, and what we are not called to be as well.

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