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Artificial intelligence

The cyborg chess players that


cant be beaten
ADVERTISEMENT

Computers have revolutionised the way chess is played and


the best chess programs are impossible to beat. But could a
player thats part human and part computer be even more
powerful?

ByChrisBaraniuk
4December2015

Itallstartedbackin1968withasimplebet.A23yearoldScottishchess
championcalledDavidLevywasatacocktailparty.Thepartywasbeinghosted
byDonaldMichie,founderoftheUniversityofEdinburghsdepartmentof
machineintelligenceandperception.SittingbesideLevyonthesofawasJohn
McCarthy,theAmericanwhoin1955hadcoinedthetermartificialintelligence.
Thetwogottochattingand,forfun,McCarthychallengedLevytoaroundof
chessrightthereandthen.Levybeathimwithoutmuchfuss.McCarthy,though,
hadapartingquip.ComputerswouldbeabletobeatachampionlikeLevy
within10years,hesaid.Levylaugheditoff,butMcCarthystucktohisground.
SoLevytooktheopportunityandofferedtomakeabet.Hewagered500the
equivalentofmorethan8,000($12,000)todaytoMcCarthyifacomputer
couldbeatLevybefore1979.
Youknow,Iwasearning895ayear,remembersLevytoday,ButIwasso
confident.

Witheachgameplayed,computerprogramsaddtotheirrepetoire,makingthemtougher
opponents(Credit:GettyImages)

Thegamewason.Thestoryofmankindsbattlewithmachinesoveramillennia
oldgameisrichwithcompetitivespiritandtechnologicalsurprise.Butwho,

humanorcomputerchip,wouldwinthebetintheend?Howdidcomputers
changechessasacompetitivesport?And,moreintriguingly,istomorrows
unbeatableplayeracombinationofhumanandmachine,drawingonthe
strengthsofboth?
Levymadehiswageratatimewhentherateofimprovementincomputingwas
high.Hisconfidenceaside,therewereplentyofpeoplelikeMcCarthywho
thoughtamachinecouldbeathim.

"
Mylongtermgoalwasfurtheraheadthanitcould
seetheprogramwouldtieitselfupinknots
DavidLevy
In1978,LevyfoundhimselfinToronto,playingacomputeropponentinamatch
whichstandsoutasasignificantmilestoneinthehistoryofchessprogramming.
Heplayedfivegamesagainsthisfoe.Thefirstwasadraw,buthewonthe
secondandthird.Thenhelostthefourth.Ifthecomputerwonthefinalgame
theywouldatthatpointbetied,butLevyperseveredandhewon.
AndLevykeptwinning.Fromthemomentofagreeingtheoriginalbetwith
McCarthy,heremainedunbeatenbycomputersinexhibitionmatchesfor21
years.Itwasntuntil1989,duringamatchhostedbytheBritishComputer
SocietyinLondon,thatLevywasfinallytoppledbyaprogramcalledDeep
Thought.Lessthan10yearslaterin1997,IBMssupercomputerDeepBlue
wouldbecomethefirsttobeatareigningworldchampionGarryKasparovin
atournamentstylegame.Theachievementwasreportedaroundtheworld.
Butevenby1989,computersweresucceedingagainstchessgrandmastersand
Levyknewhisunbeatenstreakcouldntlastforever.Hehad,duringallhisyears
ofpractice,developedafewanticomputertacticsthathadhelpedgethimto
thatpoint.Theywouldntnecessarilyprovideanyadvantageagainstanother

humanbutcouldgiveaplayertheedgeoveracomputeropponent.

ChesschampionGarryKasparovwasfirstbeatenbyacomputer,DeepBlue,in1997
(Credit:GettyImages)

Icalleditdonothingbutdoitwell,herecalls.WhatIdidwasIsortofsat
theremakingmovesthatimprovedmypositionintinyways.[]Thecomputer
wouldntbeabletounderstandwhatmylongtermplanwas.
Crashthroughandcrushit
Inthosedays,computerchessprogramscouldplanonlyarestrictednumberof
movesahead,perhapsfiveorsix.Levywouldbidehistimeandlookfor
opportunitiesthatmightlethimtakethelead.
Mylongtermgoalwasfurtheraheadthanitcouldseeandwhatwould
inevitablyhappenisthattheprogramwouldtieitselfupinknots,hesays.
Then,atsomepointinthegamemypositionwouldbesostrongthatIcould
crashthroughandcrushit.
Butanticomputertacticsdidnotbecomeirrelevantafter1989,oreven1997.
BorisAlterman,anIsraeligrandmasterwhobecamerecognisedforaseriesof

matchesagainstcomputersinthe1990sandearly2000snicknamedhissimilar
strategy,TheAltermanWall.Forthis,hewouldplaydefensivelybehindarow
ofpawns,knowingthatwithmorepiecesontheboard,thecomputerfoundit
hardertocalculateanadvantagebecauseofthelargenumberofpossible
movestoconsider.

"
Therewerestillimportantareasofthegamein
whichhumanscouldexcelagainstamachine
Thatisoneofthe,Iwouldsay,besttacticswhichIusedinmyfamousgames
againstcomputers,commentsAlterman.
ShayBushinsky,achessprogrammerwhodevelopedtheprogramJunioralong
withAmirBan,isalongtimefriendofAlterman.Herecallsworkingwithhimon
Juniorintheearly2000s,whentherewerestillimportantareasofthegamein
whichhumanscouldexcelagainstamachine.

Onewayhumanplayerscanbalancethingsintheirfavouristomakethecomputerplay
withfewerpieces(Credit:SciencePhotoLibrary)

Takethisexample,inwhichJunior(playingaswhite)isbeatenbyahighly
defensivestrategyfromgrandmasterJeroenPiket(playingasblack).One
commenterwrites,greatanticomputerchess!justwatchthejunior'splayafter
move12heaccomplishesnothingandjustmovesaroundhispieceswhile
piket[sic]buildsupacrushingattack!
Andtherewerepeoplewhorealisedthatchessprogramswerentalways
accuratelycodedinthefirstplace.SimonWaters,aBritishchessenthusiast,
foundsomeprogrammingerrorsinthepopularfreeprogramGNUChess.
Therewasanissuewithtimekeeping,soatsomepointsitwouldallowitself
almostnotimetothinkevenwhenithadtimeontheclock,hewritesinan
email,givingoneexample.
Toopowerful
Theproblemwithtacticsandbugs,though,isoncechessprogrammersknow
aboutthem,theycanbefixedorprogrammedagainst.Lateron[anticomputer
approaches],inspiredustoactuallydevelopanewmodelwherewebetter
understoodthisphenomenon.Weactuallydidthat,helpinguswintwo
consecutiveworldchampionshipslater,saysBushinsky.

"
Therearesomanybillionsofmovesthatcanbe
madeduringamatchthatevencomputershaveto
analysewhatshappeningonthefly
ChessprogrammershavebeenpickingupontheinsightsofpeoplelikeDavid
LevyandBorisAltermaneversincethat1968bet.Infact,chessprogramstoday
aresostrongthateventhebesthumanplayerintheworld(currentlythe24
yearoldNorwegianMagnusCarlsen)wouldnthaveahopeofwinninga
tournamentmatch.

Why?
Inthelast10yearstherehavebeenmassiveimprovementsintermsofboth
thesearchandtheevaluation,saysMarkLefler,aprogrammerwhoworkson
thepowerfulKomodochessprogram.Thesearchishighlyselectivenowand
theychopoffpartsofthetree[ofpossiblemoves]orgreatlyreducethemifa
programdoesntthinkamoveisntparticularlygood,hesays.

Chesshasbillionsofpossiblemoves,andcomputerssometimesstrugglewiththesheer
numberofoptions(Credit:SciencePhotoLibrary)

Thecriticallinescanbesearchedmuch,muchmoredeeply,headds.
Chessisagamethatstillhasntbeensolved.Therearesomanybillionsof
movesthatcanbemadeduringamatchthatevencomputershavetoanalyse
whatshappeningonthefly.Togetbetteratthistheyhavetograduallylearn
orbuildupdatabasesaboutthepotentialoutcomesofanymoveinany
situation.
Ihavealivingroomfullofcomputersconstantlyplayinggamestryingtoprove
thatanideaisbetterthanwhatwealreadyhave,saysLefler.

Overnight,Leflerssixcomputersplaythroughover14,000gameseachduring
aneighthourperiod.Sixmachinestimes14,000gamesisalotofgames,he
says.Andwitheverygameplayed,thedatabasegetsdeeperandricher.

"
Thereisevensportinginterestinwatching
computersplayagainstoneanother
TheresultofLeflersbusilywhirringmachinesistheeverincreasingprowessof
Komodo.Thereisaratingsystemforchessabilitythatappliestobothhumans
andcomputerscalledtheEloratingsystem,afterArpadElo,aphysics
professorwhoinventedit.
MagnusCarlsensEloiscurrently2,850whileKomodossitscomfortably
abovethatat3,350.Theseratingschangeovertimebasedongameswon,
lostanddrawnagainstopponents,takingtheopponentsownElointoaccount.
Forexample,foraplayerwithanEloof1,400wouldgetabiggerboostby
drawingagainstCarlsenthansomeoneoracomputerwithacomparableElo
totheworldchampionwhoachievedthesameresult.
Chesscyborg
Altermanhaslongceasedtryingtobeatcomputers.Itjustbecomeslikein
athleticstorunagainstamachineitisalmostimpossibleforhumanstoplay,
hesays.Buthascompetitiveplayagainstcomputersdiedasaresult?Farfrom
it.DavidLevypointsoutthattoday,socalledoddsmatches,inwhichthe
computerstartsoffwith,forexample,onepawnlessthanthehumanplayer,are
currentlyquitepopular.Komodohasplayedaseriesofgrandmastersunder
suchconditions.
And,itsworthnotingthatthereisevensportinginterestinwatchingcomputers
playagainstoneanother.Thishasbeenthecaseforsometimeanditsnow
commonforchesscomputerfanstokeeptrackofanddiscussmachinevs

machineboutsinonlineforums.

Cancomputerskeeptheiradvantageifwenolongerplaythem?(Credit:GettyImages)

Butinsteadofthecomputeralwaysbeingtheopponent,whatifitweredesigned
toassistahumanplayersothattheadvantagesofbothkindsofbrainwere
usedatonce?Suchasystemakindofchesscyborgcouldelevateeven
noviceplayerstogreatness.
Andthatsexactlywhathappenedtotwoamateursin2005.StevenCramton
andZackaryStephenwerechessbuddieswhometatalocalclubinNew
HampshireintheUS.Theyhadspentafewyearshoningtheirskillsatthegame
andStephen,inparticular,waskeenonchessprogramming.
Theyenteredafreestyletournamentthatyearwhichattractedseveralteamsof
grandmastersaidedbycomputers.Thetournamentwasplayedremotely,
online,viatheserversofPlaychess.com.
BothCramtonandStephenwereamateurs,theyhaddayjobsandwere
effectivelyunknownintheworldofcompetitivechess.Buttheyhadsomeclever
tricksuptheirsleeve.Forone,theyhaddevelopedadatabaseofpersonal

strategiesthatshowedwhichofthetwoplayerstypicallyhadgreatersuccess
whenfacedwithsimilarsituations.

"
Wehadreallygoodmethodologyforwhentousethe
computerandwhentouseourhumanjudgement
ZackaryStephen
WedidhaveareallyextensivedatabasethatIworkedonforfourorfiveyears
beforethat,remembersStephen.Stevehadcontributedtoit.
TheyalsohadthreePCschuggingthroughthenumbersandthesehadbeen
speciallypreparedbyStephen.Butcrucially,theyknewhowtoactuallyplaya
cyborggame.
Wehadreallygoodmethodologyforwhentousethecomputerandwhento
useourhumanjudgement,thatelevatedouradvantage,Stephensays.
Cheaterscharter
Andintheend,itallpaidofftheywonthetournament,leavinggrandmasters
andsomewellknownprogramsintheirwake.Itwasquiteashockbutitproved
thetheoryworked:certainhumanskillswerestillunmatchedbymachineswhen
itcametochessandusingthoseskillscleverlyandcooperativelycouldmakea
teamunbeatable.Humansplayingalongsidemachinesarethoughtofasthe
strongestchessplayingentitiespossible.
Itsafactwhichsavesmankind,andrightlyso,fromtheignominyofsimply
beingbeatenbycomputersatagamewehavebeenpractisingformillennia.But
itsalsofairtonotethatcomputershaveprobablyirreparablychangedtheway
thatchessisplayedforever.Inrecentyearstherehasbeenaworryingrisein
cheatingattournaments,manysuchincidentsinvolvingtheuseofcomputers.In

Aprilthisyear,onegrandmasterwascaughtapparentlycheatingafterhekept
leavingamatchtogotothebathroom.OfficialssaytheyfoundaniPodTouch
withachessapptheybelievewasbeingconsultedduringtoiletbreaks.And
inSeptember,anItalianwasdiscoveredtobeusinganelaboratesystem
involvingacamera,Morsecodeandanaccomplicearmedwithachess
programtocheatduringatournament.
Chesshasalwaysbeenandwillalwaysbefiercelycompetitive.Thecomputers
mayindeedbetoostrongtobeat.ButBushinskymakesaninteresting
comment.Becauseyoungplayerstodaydonteventhinkofchallengingthem,
theeraofmachinesimprovingoutofadirectresponsetopluckyhumanrivalry
mayhavecometoanend.Thefactwevebecometooscaredtoplaythemmay
beabrilliantmoveinitself
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