That’s it! I’m taking my ball and I’m going home. For all of history, humans have been #1 at board games, but now there’s a new kid in town. Oh and that kid? He runs on code. Welcome to CompChomp, the only show on the internets where player 2 has an eidetic memory. So, uh, flipping the table? That is not gonna save you. There was a time, not long ago, so not long ago that your grandma Mimi probably remembers it, when computers did not play a single game. These were serious machines and they served serious purposes. (Purposi?) (Porpoises?) They needed to do things that were important, like calculating missile trajectories and cracking wartime codes. But even in the chaos of WWII, engineers found stolen moments here and there to teach computers to play games.
One of the earliest examples was of the computer called the Nimatron and it played a math-based game called Nim. The engineers at Westinghouse Electric created it as part of their showcase for the World’s Fair. 50,000 people played against the computer during the World’s Fair, and almost none of them won. The engineers actually built in a delay between when the computer calculated what its next move would be and when it actually made that move just so people didn’t feel bad every time they lost. So WWII starts winding down, but at the same time the Cold War is ramping up, and computer scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain start dreaming of a day that a computer-based intelligence is going to help them defeat their enemies.
Or, at least, quickly translate all of their enemy documents. In the beginning of Artificial Intelligence, the ability for a computer to play a game like chess was seen as proof that computers were smart. And in the beginning computers sucked at it! Experts say that a really good human player can see about 10 moves ahead (5 turns for each player) using the eyes of their mind… their intuition. But computers, they can’t make decisions based on guts. Cuz umm, they haven’t got any guts! So instead, they have to make their decision by looking at every possible move they could make and every possible outcome from every possible move and then deciding which next move was the best one.
MATH ALERT!!! You know this is gonna be some good math cause I’ve got on my math glasses. There are roughly 30 legal moves per chess position. For one set of turns, that would be 30 * 30, or 900. For two sets of turns you’d multiply that by itself: 900 times 900 = 810,000. Does that seem right? It is. By the time you get to just 5 sets of turns you are talking over nine quadrillion possibilities. That is a whole lot of possibilities. Your shiny shiny brand new quad core pentium 10000 whatever that you’ve got sitting on your desk right now could not calculate all of that in the 3 minutes allowed by tournament play, so what do you think that 1950’s PC behemoth is supposed to do? Forgetaboutit! The humans continued to dominate all the way until the 1970s.
That is the first moment when computer chess players were able to start beating high ranking human players. One of the ways they improved the computer programs was by slightly tweaking the algorithm. It’s actually kind of cool. So, before they were trying to look at every single possibility of every single move, and they just didn’t have the power for that. Instead, they said, you know what?There are pieces in chess that are more important than other pieces, like the queen. And they started looking at moves that would put those pieces in a better position and those were the only moves that they would then like calculate out and choose just the one best result for that. And that was a tiny bit of the improvement. Most of it actually came from raw computing power. Crunching those numbers! No computer was able to beat a chess grand master until 1996 when IBM’s Deep Blue faced off against Garry Kasparov and won! One game.
Kasparov actually took the tournament. Sorry, computers. A year later a highly upgraded version of Deep Blue was able to beat Garry Kasparov in an entire tournament, making it the very first time in all of history that a computer defeated a chess grand master under tournament conditions. Why?!? That souped-up version of Deep Blue was able to see 200 million positions per second and calculate 6 to 8 moves ahead. Once again, it was tiny algorithm tweaks and a whole lot of raw computing power that gave the victory to the computers. Deep Blue retired after that. And by retired I mean we ripped it in two and sent it to two different museums. Sweet revenge! But it was too late. There were new chess computers popping up every single year like daisies. By 2006, humans couldn’t even beat the top computers anymore. We were down, but we were not out. Humanity had a secret weapon, and that weapon was GO. CHOMP!.