Today, we ask if the king of games is dead. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Shah Mat! The Persian words
announce that the king is dead. The English
version, Check Mate, says the chess king has died.
Now computers have chess itself, the king of games,
The first chess-playing robot showed up in the
1760s. Later, that same machine drove Napoleon to
rage by beating him in 19 moves. But it wasn't
really a machine at all. It was a trick. A small
chess master sat in the apparatus pulling levers.
Edgar Allan Poe was one person who guessed the
secret. It couldn't be a real machine, he said,
because it made mistakes. He'd made the right
conclusion for the wrong reason. Nineteenth-century
determinism expected machines to be perfect. Now we
do better by giving machines some room to make
Programing a computer to win at chess is difficult.
It was 1958 before we could even tell one how to
follow the rules of chess. It was 1966 before we
had a program that could compete with the average
This might seem to be frivolous stuff for serious
engineers. It is not. Beneath the surface lie
important questions about the way computers think.
By the '60s, computer people had split into two
camps. Some thought they should imitate the
strategies of chess masters. Others said "No, use
brute force." All a machine has to do to beat a
human is to look at all possibilities --10 or 15
For twenty years, brute-force computers marched
through the tournament chess ranks. Those machines
became experts -- then masters. Finally, they
threatened even senior masters. Only grand masters
remained out of reach.
Then four students at Carnegie-Mellon added
learning ability to brute force. They made a new
chess-playing computer called Deep Thought, and
they turned it loose on the great chess players.
Deep Thought became the first mechanical grand
master. It's rating is on the low end of the scale,
but it's there.
Now the four've picked up IBM support. They promise
a new version of Deep Thought in 1992. Kasparov
allows it might beat the general run of grand
masters. "But not Karpov and me!" he adds. So the
battle lines are drawn -- man vs. machine. I rather
expect Deep Thought will beat Karpov and Kasparov
in the end.
But I won't credit the victory to the machine. The
students point out that it's their collective --
and quite human -- mind up against the masters. In
the end, the combat isn't man against machine at
all. It's four good minds -- against just one.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds