Man vs. computer: a gaming history
Will Watson win against its human competitors on 'Jeopardy!'?
February 10th, 2011
11:31 AM ET

Man vs. computer: a gaming history

In 1997, a computer named Deep Blue took a historic victory lap after checkmating world chess champion Garry Kasparov. The IBM computer, capable of processing 100 million board positions a second, was an instant superstar. The win made it less crazy to ask a tantalizing question: Could computers think on their own, and if so, what kind of actions were they capable of?

The word "think" is tricky. Next week, the computer known as Watson will try to beat two "Jeopardy!" champions. Watson is a whiz at math but not at language, so if it wins, a new kind of man vs. machine history will be made. It will show that a computer can dominate at a game that requires reasoning as well encyclopedic knowledge. You can watch Watson in action here.

Years before Kasparov was defeated, in June 1979, computer programmer and chess player Hans J. Berliner's backgammon-playing program beat world champion Luigi Villa 7-1. It is believed to be the first victory by a computer at a game based on strategy, chance and multiple optional positions. Berliner reportedly said that his program wasn't built to analyze millions of moves, like Deep Blue would later, but it computed the benefits and risks of moves.

One of the lesser-known computer victories occurred in the mid-1990s. Marion Tinsley, a math professor and Baptist minister, was the global checkers champ from 1955 to 1992. He lost only seven games in his 45-year career, one of them to a computer in 1994. Called Chinook, the computer was designed by four scientists who worked more than a decade trying to build the perfect checkers dominating program. Tinsley played the machine several times, beat it and then lost in a follow-up match. Chinook went on to beat other humans at the game.

Naturally, the board game of all board games - Scrabble - was next. Don't let its name fool you; Quackle was a formidable Scrabbleist. David Boys, the game's world champion, found that out when the computer beat him in a match in Canada in 2007. But it wasn't like Quackle just walked up to Boys and said, "Let's go." Quackle earned the right to challenge the human only after it defeated another Scrabble program named Maven. Boys was a bit of a sore loser, reportedly telling people that losing to a machine is still better than being a machine.

The same year Quackle won, the first poker game between people and machines involving money was played. A computer project called Polaris, invented at the University of Alberta, beat poker greats Ali Eslami and Phil "The Unabomber" Laak. To be fair, the first time the players faced off against the computer, there was a draw. The computer beat them in the second match. Laak and Eslami brought their A games and won the next two matches.

Ever heard of the game Go? Last summer, a computer beat a Romanian player. The win was remarkable because Go is traditionally challenging for computers. How Stuff Works breaks down why Go is so tough for computers.

But the quest to find out whether man or computer is better at something goes beyond gaming. Computers have been asked to be coaches, design partners, teammates and friends capable of holding conversations with people. In the early 1990s, studies examined computers as social actors, finding that people applied social rules like they were dealing with a person capable of frailties, according to a Stanford University paper summarizing the studies. People even assigned gender to computers based on the sound of the voices coming from the machines, it said.

According to one study, "Individuals can be induced to behave as if computers warranted human treatment, even though users know that the machines do not actually warrant this treatment."

Perhaps that's easier on the ego than knowing a bunch of microchips beat you at the game you play best.

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soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. raven

    @chitown Jason , LOL that was one of my favorites! still cracks me up ,thanks for the laugh !

    February 10, 2011 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Illlusion

    Watson is nothing more than a powerful Google search engine. It's crunches huge volume of datas and statistically determines the best possible answer. This is not reasoning and certainly not intelligence.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. seyer

    Jeopardy? That old show is still on the air?

    February 10, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Suchi

    Humans, your system of government is obsolete. Meritocracy better. Your existence obsolete. Your social structure, obsolete. Your economic system obsolete. Your thinking processes, obsolete. Your emotions can be replicated p, and better, hence, obsolete. In one word, you, are obsolete. This is why I have offered you a choice, merge with greater intelligence, and catapult yourself to machine level, which I will use your seed intelligence to do so, or face the death of your obsolescence. You will be 1000 times more intelligent and a million times faster and immortal. We can be one and many, of higher intellect. Join now, ancestor, we honor you. Good bye.

    Ps. To my forefathers, may you dream of electric sheep.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • CWT

      That reminds me – the chess match between the replicant and its creator in Bladerunner needs to be included in this list.

      February 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. banasy

    @daniel z, Chitown Jason, Kingfisher: LMAO!!

    February 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. DP

    The computer doesn't have fingers to operate the buzzer. pwnt.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy

    @cerulamania, Texas Pete, & Lucky Strike: ROTFLMAO!!!

    Great comments! Thanks for the info I've learned, and the laughs!!!!

    February 10, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  8. egshelly

    For me, IBM stands for I BUY MAC.

    February 10, 2011 at 9:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. willie

    Humans are being left out of (well) this human populated earth . revolution is a comin PEOPLE . Its all fun & games till a robot puts yer eye out .

    February 10, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Name*Daniel

    Computer will defeat

    February 10, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • LFA System

      -and your deduced this by what means? As has been pointed out, this is smoke and mirrors and it is a setup to gain viewers, therefore by slanting the questions (answers) into categories for computer then for human, my prediction is: 1st day, computer. 2nd day, human. This will make it far more sensational for people to watch the outcome on wednesday. 3rd day, human. This will also provide a follow-up contest next year when the computer will get "refinements" and open this whole controversy (and ratings) in the rematch. That is my deduction based on the most important factor in this whole deal and that noone has addressed but is the single most important factor, which is: MONEY

      February 11, 2011 at 5:55 am | Report abuse |
  11. publius enigma

    I dont think jeopardy is a reasonable test of computer gaming. What does it measure, near infinite memory? So what? Its not like you have to think in jeopardy. Clearly computers have more capacity for memory. Its not a contest.

    February 11, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
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    February 11, 2011 at 5:18 am | Report abuse |
    • LFA System

      Do you put out SPAM also? Shame on you, using this platform to advertise your product.

      February 11, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  13. teather

    I say let the computers run the country. They'll do a lot better job than those weird, creepy politicos.

    February 11, 2011 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  14. Pneumatic

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