Nate Silver’s ‘The Signal and the Noise’

September 26, 2012

Normally, when a new book rolls into our office, we subject it to Marshall McLuhan's page 69 test. Flip to page 69, read what's there. If the passage is any good, then the book's worth a deeper browse.

But here comes our advance copy of Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don't." And there's a problem. Page 69 is just a bit mundane, explaining why candidates for the U.S. House tend to be more obscure than candidates for the Senate. The sort of thing you can already read on Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog.

Yet the book is certainly not mundane! There are fascinating chapters on how weather forecasting has improved over time, on poker tips, and on why seismologists can't predict earthquakes. So we're invoking a rare exception and bringing you page, uh, 288 from Silver's book—an anecdote about how a random glitch in IBM's Deep Blue computer may have enabled it to beat Garry Kasparov in their famous 1997 chess match:

Nevertheless, there were some bugs in Deep Blue's inventory: not many, but a few. Toward the end of my interview with him, [Murray] Campbell somewhat mischievously referred to an incident that had occurred toward the end of the first game in their 1997 match with Kasparov.

"A bug occurred in the game and it may have made Kasparov misunderstand the capabilities of Deep Blue," Campbell told me. "He didn't come up with the theory that the move it played was a bug."

The bug had arisen on the forty-fourth move of their first game against Kasparov; unable to select a move, the program had defaulted to a last-resort fail-safe in which it picked a play completely at random. The bug had been inconsequential, coming late in the game in a position that had already been lost; Campbell and team repaired it the next day. "We had seen it once before, in a test game played earlier in 1997, and thought that it was fixed," he told me. "Unfortunately there was one case that we had missed."

In fact, the bug was anything but unfortunate for Deep Blue: it was likely what allowed the computer to beat Kasparov. In the popular recounting of Kasparov's match against Deep Blue, it was the second game in which his problems originated—when he had made the almost unprecedented error of forfeiting a position that he could probably have drawn. But what had inspired Kasparov to commit this mistake? His anxiety over Deep Blue's forty-fourth move in the first game—the move in which the computer had moved its rook for no apparent purpose. Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.

"The Signal and the Noise" comes out Thursday. You can order it here. All of our previous page 69 tests are available here.

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Dylan Matthews | September 26, 2012