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. Lo

    This is the beginning of the Rise of the all started with an innocent appearance on Jeopardy. The Alex-1000 is the Terminator.

    February 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Lo

    The contestant should kick the plug.

    February 10, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bryant

    If the machine was left on its own......its would decide our fate in a micro-second!!!

    February 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dell

    Can it be programmed to kick Trebeks pretentious @ss ?

    February 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • LuckyStrike

      Wow! Fantastic! Extraordinary! Fascinating! So why can't they still can't built a consumer laptop or desktop that doesn't crash if I look at it too hard?

      February 10, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. thomas

    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.

    Which is exactly how your own mind operates.

    February 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. maplejet

    How long before people begin making "MACHINES ARE GOING TO TAKE OVER MEN"/Terminator/Matrix references?

    February 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Skynet

    First beaten at jeopardy, next beaten on the battlefield. Look out.

    February 10, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Greeds


    February 10, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ELH

    It is just a machine. It cannot imagine nor conjecture as humans do. It cannot play a 'hunch.' Its strength is simply being able to access vast databases of information with high performance search algorithms and find matches or data patterns. Questions like "How do you think the Green Bay Packers will do next year?" are essentially unanswerable beyond parroting what one of the programmers decided it should answer. It cannot 'know' Aaron Rogers beyond comparing his statistics with a data base of NFL quarterback statistics.

    There is no Hal and never will be. Nor a Data (sorry, Trekies).

    February 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Ah, so you're one of those people who still thinks the human brain runs on magic. Try this: pull up a memory. Anything, doesn't matter. Got it? Ok. Now I dare you to explain how you were able to do that without talking about storage, indexing and retrieval.

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

    YEt how do you imagine.. or envision things? and a hunch is just and educated guess.. one made under the vast database of human experience that your mind makes a statistical quote on. I mean Is someone asks me how the packers will do n3ext year do I bull that out of thin air or do I rely on my database of information and experience to draw an hypothesis.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MarcInHouston

    But Watson basically has access to the internet, or the ability to store lots of information from the internet. Give me an iPad with wikipedia access and I could probably beat those champions too.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Adrian

    I think the machine might have it due to the fact of its information storage capacity. It might not seem it but computers can in many regards process more data than humans can. Alongside this the computer could do checks on information relating to data that could be relevant to the topics of questions Why be scared of a machine our fellow humans do a great job of killing each other. To me this fear of robots is as bad as the fear of sharks. Get one decent movie out about something then it automatically becomes bad.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. IBM hype

    What's the point? Machine thinking is nothing like intelligence as we know it. It's not even close.

    February 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Marcus


    February 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Renee


      February 10, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • 0011011000111001


      February 11, 2011 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
  15. LuckyStrike

    Fantastic! Extraordinary! Fascinating! So why can't they still can't built a consumer laptop or desktop that doesn't crash if I look at it too hard?

    February 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • SB

      Because Watson's users are computer literate.

      February 10, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Report abuse |
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