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. UhYeah

    So... that spent thousands to make a PC do it's own Google Search. Amazing. *rolls eyes*

    February 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      Have you ever seen Jeopardy? Try googling those questions, the answer isn't what you'll get back.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy Z

      Actually it *is* pretty much a search engine. The difference is it only has accepted facts in its database, coupled with statistical analysis of the most likely Jeopardy answer.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Casey

      It won't be connected to the internet. There was an hour long special about Watson on NOVA last night. Thousands of dollars? I'd say 10 million plus. It may be well worth it considering what's learned in attempting it. The challenge is having Watson understand the language and context. Does your computer understand if you're a man or woman? Well, Watson doesn't either, and it's going to have a tough time on the show.

      February 10, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'So... that spent thousands to make a PC do it's own Google Search. Amazing. *rolls eyes*'
      Thousands of dollars spent on education just to end up with you commenting on how its a pc doing google search *rolls eyes*

      February 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      Calling Watson a search engine is like calling our brains search engines. You could argue either way, but it's much more complicated than searching for an answer (or question in this case), the biggest part is actually understanding the answer. This thing will actually learn during the show, as other contestants provide answers to the clues and categories it doesn't understand.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • john

      I don't believe that Google search has ever given me an answer to a complicated question. Instead, it presents me scores of links, many of them paid ads ... and encourages me to spend my limited human life span clicking and surfing to find my answers. Strangely enough, surfing for answers is fun for a while. But eventually you realize that there must be a better way. I hope Watson is the driving us to a path that breaks us free from surf syndrome.

      February 11, 2011 at 6:48 am | Report abuse |
  2. Glenn Cuneo

    Watson, this is Dr. Chandler. Open the pod day doors...

    February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. DJCowboy

    What about the time Locke beat the computer at chess in the The Flame dharma station?

    February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kimo

    The link does not really show the computer in action.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. coffeecup

    Wonder if Christina will be singing the National Anthem!!..so exciting, can't wait!!

    February 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Misanthrope

    I for one look forward to teaching our new machine overlords the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Answering those philosophical questions such as ‘Do I have a soul’ and ‘is there a silicon heaven’ to which I can answer, ‘No’… ('No silicon heaven'? Where would all of the calculators go?)

    February 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zaphod

      The answer is 42..we all know that by now.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'The answer is 42..we all know that by now.'
      Ok a Hitchhikers crossover on a Red Dwarf quote posting, lol.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. cerulamania

    if the computer losses, at least it will have a woman to come home to

    February 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Chris M.

    This will deffinately be the greatest jeopardy three-day program ever. 2 masters of jeopardy against a smart computer. This will be intense. I'm putting my money on Watson.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Reader998

    Check out the NOVA program that aired last night: http://video.pbs.org/video/1786674622
    coolest moment: when Watson 'learned' in real-time by being fed the answers that the humans were giving to other questions in the same category. I don't know if Watson also gets the in-correct answers the other contestants give; often that is a good way to deduce the right answer.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Plankton

    Karen left me.

    February 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • WVOIFVET

      ROFLMAO!!!! That's the best one I've seen so far!!!! Kudos to you!

      February 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Not of this earth

    Great reporting. Force us to follow the link if we want to learn the names of the contestants. (Yup, not everyone is a Jeopardy junkie.)

    February 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eric

    If the machine beats the humans (and it looks like it might) this is a huge accomplishment in AI. Chess, checkers, and go are games with extremely simple rules compared to something like the English language. Jeopardy puzzles are stated using English, often with puns, wordplay, analogy, etc. - even for a normal human it's challenging sometimes to divine the meaning. Just understanding the English is just the first part; then you have to actually create a proper question to the answer.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jon

    I wrote a program to play a game that's a cross between Tic-Tac_Toe and Majic Squares. If you don't know the strategy behind it, the program will beat you big time.
    I also wrote a program for two people to play Jetan.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • J

      Cool, guy....

      February 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Rob

    Is Watson a stand alone computer or is it hooked to a larger network? Hooked to a network would be cheating. But then the definition of 'computer' comes into question.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Deep Roy

      Watson, like his human opponents, is stand alone and not connected to any network (other than the electric grid). He has 4 TB of hard drive in the form of two 2 TB hard drives. However, his hard drives are not really used, because that data is all loaded into his 15 TB of RAM. He is loaded with quality reference sources, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspaper and magazine archives, etc., not the average crap found on-line. I saw one reference that he has 200 million pages of data for his 2,000 to 3,000 core processors to query.

      February 10, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kaiser

    When is the game?

    February 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
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