Computer heralds draughts of change

MAN against machine for the official world title in a game of pure thought. This science-fiction scenario became reality at the Park Lane Hotel in London last week.

Draughts is often seen as the weedy little brother of chess, but for both humans and computers its possibilities are vast. If the Chinook computer program can add to its two victories and go on to beat the world champion, Dr Marion Tinsley, over 40 games, it will be a significant achievement.

However, the match took an unexpected turn yesterday when Chinook seized up in the middle of the 18th game. Play was suspended as its programmers and engineers tried to sort out the fault, but they were unable to start it again immediately and had to resign the game. Chinook was later able to play two more games, both drawn, leaving the score at two wins each with 16 draws at the halfway stage.

Dr Jonathan Schaeffer, Chinook's programmer, said: 'It's like asking what is the scientific contribution of climbing Mount Everest. It's nothing. But it's a milestone. What we can really say is that we now know we can solve a certain level of complexity and therefore there's no point in tackling anything simpler.'

Dr Schaeffer, 35, specialises in machine intelligence at the University of Alberta in Canada. In the mid-1980s he wrote one of the world's strongest chess- playing programs, but had good academic reasons for changing games. 'Computer chess was so competitive. The bottom line in computer chess is the result: 'My program finished half a point ahead of yours in a tournament' - that was all they cared about. That's not research. It's not advancing anything.'

Competitiveness, he says, is the worst thing that has happened to computer chess. He cites some recent work proving that, from any normal position, king, rook and bishop can always defeat king and two knights, but it may take at least 220 moves. 'Absolutely fascinating, but utterly irrelevant,' he says. Apart from the fact that either player could claim a draw after the first 50 moves, that ending has never occurred in a century of grandmaster practice. 'Millions of dollars of computing time are being spent on computing databases, and all it does is further our knowledge of chess. It doesn't further our knowledge of anything else in any way.'

Last year, Chinook (named after a wind in the Rocky Mountains) won the right to challenge Dr Tinsley for the world title. 'The moment that we earned the right to play Dr Tinsley it became a tremendous pressure to win. All of a sudden it didn't become so much of a research effort.'

Draughts (called 'checkers' in the United States) is, to Dr Schaeffer, a measure of the present limits of complexity that computers can handle. 'There are five times 10 to the twentieth (that is five followed by 20 zeros) possible checkers positions. There's absolutely no doubt that today, with the proper computing equipment, we could solve the game of checkers. We could enumerate every single one of those checkers positions, store them somewhere and the computer would be 100 per cent perfect.'

All he needs is 10 years and a multi- million-dollar computer. And the work could have applications. 'There are a lot of problems in physics, for example, where you want to find the optimal solution to a problem and there are billions and billions of possibilities. Finding the optimal move (in draughts) is comparable to these problems.'

Chinook's successes, particularly its win in the eighth game against Dr Tinsley, have been praised as evidence of computer creativity; but Dr Schaeffer says: 'My program has zero intelligence. What I do is not create intelligence, but the illusion of intelligence. My computer is dumb. It'll only do what I program it to do. It plays checkers pretty well, but you want to ask it to play bridge? Until computers are capable of independent thought, there's no point in even talking about intelligence.'

But what if a machine does become the best draughts player in the world? Will chess be next? With 10 to the 44th possible positions, chess is a considerably bigger problem.

As for proceeding to the complexities of real life, Dr Schaeffer has still less faith in computers: 'The problems are so difficult that I don't think the things people are afraid of - like intelligent machines that can talk back and reason and do all sorts of things like the computer Hal in the film 2001 - will happen in my lifetime. In 100 years from now, maybe, but I'm not optimistic.'

(Photograph omitted)

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor