Sunday, November 16, 2003

Computers and games... 

So, a lot of talk lately about Gary Kasparov playing X3D Fritz and losing the second game. It does seem like humans are in trouble when it comes to chess. I suppose a prodigy may come along who is specifically good at fighting computers, but with computing power continuing to rise, it seems like a difficult prospect.

However, I do think that there is something interesting to take into consideration that most people don't bring up in discussions like this. Chess is a popular game in the west and the world in general and is known as a mind game. It is also a game where computers have always been pretty decent at. There is frequently a limitation on the number of good moves, you can generally assign points to certain pieces based on the value of their strength, etc. Obviously, things get more and more complicated at the higher levels, but there is still a lot of aspects that a computer can understand and use brute strength to conquer.

But this is chess. What about other stuff? Is it the same for every game? No, it definitely isn't. Another popular game would be Go. While less known in the west, it has been played for many years in the east, invented in China but with a long history in Japan (Go masters and schools were financially supported by the royalty for many years, allowing a lot of progress).

Go is based on a 19x19 grid that starts empty with pieces placed onto it which then cannot move (only one kind of piece). The goal of the game is to surround more territory than the enemy, and while it is possible to capture opposing pieces, that isn't the general aim. Because of the number of possible moves possible in most stages, the reliance of "shapes" of pieces, the less defined notion of when a game ends, etc., it makes the game more difficult for computers. It is very much a game of pattern matching, which humans excel at. Not as much work has been put toward computers that play Go as for Chess, but most seem to agree that even taking that into consideration, computers find Go a much harder game to play. Even the most powerful Go programs seem to be at an intermediate level of playing, a far cry from beating grandmasters.

What's my point by all this? Yes computers are getting more and more powerful, but just because they can win at chess doesn't mean that they are suddenly superior in every way. I think it is a good idea to try and keep in mind the relative strengths and limitations of both sides...

There is a brief intro to Go here.

Some information on computers playing Go here (a bit technical but still interesting).

And a very good Go tutorial here (with illustrations and some well done interactive java applets).

It is all interesting timing because the anniversery issue of Shonen Jump will start the run of Hikaru no Go, a popular manga involving the game of Go. A fun series that I recommend...

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