Is cheating what makes us human?

Understanding the mathematical complexity of a game like chess is a very daunting task (listen to the excellent Radiolab podcast on the subject). Even more challenging, however, is understanding a profoundly human behavior that occurs within the game of chess itself: cheating. Computer scientists Kenneth Regan has been attempting to make a mathematical model to get a better picture of the interaction:

In constructing a mathematical proof to see if someone cheated, the trouble is that so many variables and outliers must be taken into account. Modeling and factoring human behavior in competition turns out to be very difficult.

Part of the problem is that sample sizes tend to be small — maybe 150 or 200 moves per player for an entire tournament. Another problem lies in how computerized chess programs evaluate positions. They are given in increments of one-hundredth of the value of a pawn, the least valuable piece.

“A change of a hundredth of a pawn might change the agreement with the computer,” Dr. Regan said.

While cheating might seem to only apply to things like games and unhealthy relationships, scientists hope that the findings will go beyond this to modelling human behavior more completely:

The potential payoff for a proof of cheating goes well beyond chess. Jonathan Schaeffer, a professor of computer science at the University of Alberta and the inventor of Chinook, the computer that solved checkers, said that Dr. Regan’s research, and that of others who are also investigating this field, has great potential value.

“What he is doing, what these people are doing, is they are trying to model how people make decisions,” Dr. Schaeffer said.

That could also be of immense value to a big online retailer, like Amazon, that wants to customize its offerings, or for more important uses, like personalizing medical treatment.

So is it better to understand how people play games, or how they cheat when playing them? Perhaps figuring out how to sidestep or finagle our way out of difficult situations is actually what makes us human at the end of the day.

[via The New York Times]