Why do we love the drama of Man versus Machine?

2001: A Space Odyssey The human crew see artificial intelligence HAL turn on them in Stanley Kurbrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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"Never shall I be beaten by a machine". This declaration could come straight from the pages of a science fiction novel.

But this was the boast of chess world champion Garry Kasparov, who lost to an IBM computer named Deep Blue.

The match was a real-life battle of the human brain versus the power of a machine.

Kasparov's defeat made headlines across the world in 1997 - tapping into the public's fears and expectations from science fiction.

The story is being brought to the stage at the 2013 Manchester International Festival. Playwright Matt Charman examines the Russian grandmaster's defeat in The Machine.

Challenging the machine

Kasparov trains for his 1997 Deep Blue match
  • Russian-born Kasparov first became chess World Champion in 1985 at the age of 22.
  • IBM's Feng-hsiung Hsu, Joe Hoane and Murray Campbell designed Deep Blue to beat him.
  • Kasparov won 4-2 in a six game match in 1996. Deep Blue was upgraded for a 1997 rematch.
  • IBM's team of programmers and chess experts could manually reprogram Deep Blue between games to react to Kasparov's play style.
  • Deep Blue could now explore 200 million positions per second. The machine won 3.5-2.5.
  • Kasparov believed human players helped Deep Blue in one game, but IBM denied cheating.
  • Deep Blue was retired to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in 2002.

Why do we find this conflict of man versus machine so compelling?

"There is something Greek about Garry's story," says Charman. "In its purest form it is about one of us being thrust forward to represent all of humanity.

Futuristic look

"I remember watching it on the news at the time. It seemed incredible that a man had come up against a computer and been beaten.

"It was a remarkable moment. I think it's something that we've tidied away because we were not comfortable that our best and brightest was beaten by a machine.

"It was the point computers had caught up with science fiction."

Deep Blue was a chess-playing computer designed specifically to beat Kasparov. It was the first time a world champion had lost to a machine.

Charman believes IBM was well aware of the science fiction undercurrent to the event.

He says the look of Deep Blue evokes Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey - where the artificial intelligence HAL turns against a spaceship's human crew.

"Physically Deep Blue was ominous and super cool," adds Charman.

"Kubrick did the same thing in 2001. It was this otherworldly thing. It had a futuristic look - covered in lights, black and massive.

Battlestar Galactica 1970s Battlestar Galactica was retold in a 2004 remake

"Even the name Deep Blue was chosen to suggest its power to think. Everything about it said coolness and intelligence."

Sci-fi crossover

IBM turned down Kasparov's request for a rematch after his defeat. But Deep Blue's triumph inspired a more recent contest on the US television quiz show Jeopardy.

In 2011 IBM computer Watson beat two human Jeopardy champions - testing the machine's knowledge and understanding of language.

These challenges will always capture the imagination of a public who soak up science fiction, says astronomy lecturer and sci-fi enthusiast Martin Griffiths.

"Many of the highest grossing films in cinema history are science fiction, and science fiction and fantasy books are still best-sellers," he says.

"The public identify with their tropes and will have an expectation that there will be crossover into the world around them."

The Matrix Machines use humans to power their civilisation in 1999 film The Matrix

Griffiths uses science fiction examples at the University of Glamorgan to make his teaching themes more accessible.

Start Quote

Matt Charman and Hadley Fraser

We were not comfortable that our best and brightest was beaten by a machine”

End Quote Matt Charman

He believes our consumption of science fiction can often influence our positive and negative expectations of real life science.

"People are used to seeing sci-fi miracles in cinemas, and wrongly think that much of the technology and social enterprise we see will come to pass," he says.

"Much of the fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke sets the tone for a wondrous age of science, society and technology - even if the Earth does not survive.

Slaves to machines

"And there is just as much science fiction with negative connotations on the rise of technology. Rachel Carson's 1962 environmental text Silent Spring inspired some of this - for example John Brunner's novel The Sheep Look Up."

The conflict of man versus machine is continually retold in film and literature. There has been an appetite for such drama since 1818 when science brought life to the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Each generation has their own defining story. The 1960s brought Kubrick's Space Odyssey, the 1980s had James Cameron's Terminator films, and in 1999 robots turned against mankind again in the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix.

Rise of the robots

Terminator 3

Richard Edwards of SFX magazine offers his pick of classic man vs machine conflict in science fiction.

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL 9000 computer was supposed to help the crew of the Discovery on their mission to Jupiter. Instead he malfunctions and it doesn't end well.
  • The Terminator. In the near-future, sentient machines take over the world and send a killer cyborg back in time to kill the mother of the leader of the human resistance before he's born.
  • The Borg. Star Trek: The Next Generation's villains load their bodies with cybernetic implants, allowing them to lead a symbiotic relationship with their technology. Resistance is futile.
  • The Matrix. Machines take over the Earth and use the human race as batteries to power their civilisation, keeping us all in the dark by constructing an elaborate virtual reality.
  • Battlestar Galactica. Camp 1970s space opera gets a 21st century makeover, as the robots who all-but wipe out the human race develop unexpected emotional depths.

Source: SFX magazine

Griffiths says today we identify with this theme more than ever.

He adds: "When we talk to each other by mobile and email, use computers for the smallest transactions and Facebook for trivial conversations, we can ask the question: 'Are we slaves to machinery?'

"Our evolutionary drive is to survive despite all the odds. Man versus Machine is a daily human drama with real figures and we want the human figure to come out on top.

"Kasparov versus Deep Blue epitomised this struggle against our own ingenuity - can we better it, can we control it, can we best it?"

Reaffirms humanity

Modern advancement of technology means Kasparov's defeat would not resonate with the public in the same way today, according to Richard Edwards, Deputy Editor of science fiction magazine SFX.

"We're now so used to being amazed by technology I think we're desensitised to it," says Edwards.

"Ten years ago an iPhone would have seemed like something out of Star Trek. Now we have all that computing power in our pockets."

While the technology is evolving, Edwards says this won't diminish our appetite for the drama of man against machine.

"We love these stories because machines have been built to do jobs we can't. It reaffirms our humanity when we beat them - it lifts us above the machines.

"These stories are always going to be there and will keep evolving. There will always be good writers who can take it to the next level."

Matt Charman's The Machine runs at the Manchester International Festival from July 10 to 21. It is a co-production with Donmar Warehouse & Park Avenue Armory.

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