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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower