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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Filed under: Technology
soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. an IBMer

    Mon-Wed next week

    February 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |

    Judgement Day is coming. Skynet will become self-aware. The Matrix will have you...

    February 10, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rbn4deeP

    Seen the NOVA episode last night. It uses about 30 home computers processors that are loaded with a ton of info to allow it to quickly access. I believe they call the way that it comes up with its answers "machine programing (?)". I recommend everyone to find and watch it online before the Jeopardy show airs. It makes it more exciting to watch when you know the whole story.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eeon

      I watched the NOVA program last night as well and as a computer guy I was very impressed by the technology. I'm pretty sure that most people will just think the computer was automatically more intelligent than the human players, but a lot had to happen to bring Watson to a level at which it could compute on a human level, and it's still far far away from being superior. Just think we carry around greater processing power in a container the size of a football too.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dumb!

    Stupid gimmick for ratings.

    February 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. K

    Shall we play a game?

    February 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • bettman

      Would you like to play a game???

      February 10, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Texas Pete

    Good thing I changed all the Wikipedia articles I could before Watson downloaded. Now it will think that Hillary Clinton is the largest city on the moon.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Really?

    Unfortunately, Chess and Jeopardy! are not examples of artificial intelligence in computers. They are not even good examples of mimicing intelligence.

    Every move in chess can be accounted for by a computer program. It would be a large program and take a super computer to run. Winn at Jeopardy! invloves a large data base of trivia and a voice recogmniciaon program. Not really a big deal.

    Want to see if a computer can think? choose an open ended game like bridge, teach it to a computer and let it play with three humans. If it wins it has a shot at being intelligent, or at least mimicing intelligence.

    You could also say a calcualtor is capable of 'thinking' on some scale. You press the buttons for 2 + 2 = and get 4. where did the 4 come from? You didn't enter it.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      Intelligence is the capability to learn. This computer does have the capacity to learn in real time. And it's more than just a database of information, the real capabilities they're showing off are the ability to understand complex english language problems, and it's ability to learn from the answers the other contestants provide, like for categories for which it doesn't understand how to come up with an answer.

      February 10, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. IBMerJay

    Machine Learning is how Watson is able to learn from its mistakes of missed questions or unknown questions. Basically it remembers correct answers from the other contestants and then will relate the questions together to figure out patterns and then deduce what the question is asking. Very deep stuff.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Adam

    Deep Blue Lost. Then went back to the drawing board and rematched. Deeper blue won. Questionably.

    Deeper blue was a scam.

    It was amazing to see that IBM refused to allow gary access to the system's games – though Deeper blue had access to every game Gary played. So you could say that Gary went into the rematch blind while Deeper Blue had all the cards.

    Gary said he believed IBM cheated (showed human intelligence). IBMs response was to not share the game logs with Gary to prove a human was not involved and then dismantled the system. They later shared the logs to the internet, but there is quite a bit of discussion around the authenticity of the logs.

    In short – Deeper blue was a scam.

    Hopefully IBM has a streaming feed of Watson's logs.

    February 10, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Tinfoil hat much?

      February 10, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Daryl

      Kasparov went into the match after understanding and agreeing to the rules. If he wanted access to Deep Blue's games ahead of time, he should have negotiated that as part of the official agreement. He clearly felt he didn't need that kind of preparation, and was confident of beating the computer based on his success a year earlier.

      And I don't blame IBM for their reaction after the match. I attended the final game in NYC, and Kasparov's behavior was deplorable. He lost the game because of one big blunder (which even the commentator realized was a blunder), and that cost him the match. He was in such a bad mood at the award ceremony afterwards, that it ruined the moment for everyone. Instead of being gracious and congratulating the IBM team on a monumental accomplishment, he spent the whole time looking pis*ed off. He essentially accused them of cheating. It was the first match he ever lost as World Champion, and it clearly stung (though I'm sure he cashed the $400,000 check he received as the match loser). The ceremony was vastly different from the one in the previous year when Kasparov won, and everyone was all smiles and excited about the result.

      In the months following the 1997 match, Kasparov asked IBM for a rematch, and they declined. I think they would have accepted if he hadn't been such a sore loser. The whole match was great PR for IBM, and the only thing that took the luster off the shine was Kasparov's behavor.

      And if you think IBM really did cheat, check out the current crop of chess programs. They can be run on regular laptop computers and are capable of defeating any human grandmaster you can name. Do you believe these programs also cheat?

      If Watson does win its games, I hope Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter will be more gracious that Kasparov.

      February 11, 2011 at 11:54 am | Report abuse |
  10. ASCII mountain momma

    WATSON should be displayed between Ken and Brad in ASCII code.
    087 065 084 083 079 078

    February 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • dkrash

      57 45 54 53 1F 4E (Hex) for the rest of us geeks.

      February 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chuck711

    Good morning, Professor Falkin. Would you like to play a game?

    February 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Fish

    After seeing this stupid pajama commercial 100 times this week I will never buy pajamas for Valentine's day or any other day!

    February 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tony Leah

    Interesting article. Quackle and Boys may end up in a rematch this September:

    February 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Geeko

    Looks like Watson is running on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server:|Banner|IBM_Watson_SLES

    February 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. me

    Too much is being made of this. I watched the NOVA last night about this, and after watching it, it appears to me that this is all smoke and mirrors. There is no "intelligence" in this machine. Just a very powerful search engine coupled with statistical analysis to come up with the most probable answers. In fact, I think Watson is the opposite of intelligence. It is the dumb brute force of computational power. It doesn't reason, it doesn't think, it just analyzes databases and does statistics.

    February 10, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hal 8000

      And how exactly is that different than what a human does?

      February 11, 2011 at 12:12 am | Report abuse |
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