www.whyville.net Feb 8, 2009 Weekly Issue

Science Specialist

Brain Gaming

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I am obsessed with KenKen. Cheryl, our Executive Director here at Science Chicago, also loves playing KenKen, and she actually got me hooked (I like numbers a whole lot). However, I also know that almost any computer could and would beat Cheryl (and ok probably me too) in a competition. So how can modern humans take true intellectual pleasure in brain games that computers can play so much better?

Human Brain

IBMs Deep Blue chess playing program, human-ego-deflating Scrabble and Crossword programs cannot lose. So is it possible to create a universal mental game that computers won't eventually be able to beat humans at? Is there still hope for the human side?

So I did some brain game research, and the best game that embarrasses the computer side is Go. Go is a fascinating board game that originated in China 4,000 years ago, and it is still played today by millions of people (now including me). Now, to understand how hard Go is for even a smart computer, here's how it works. Two players alternate in placing black and white stones on a large (19?19 line) ruled board, with the aim of surrounding territory. Stones never move, and are only removed from the board if they are completely surrounded.

In Go, looking ahead and trying to figure out what your next move from a deep analysis of possible moves, which enables the brilliance of many computer chess programs, quickly tumbles down a numerical morass. Looking ahead five moves in chess involves looking at 1.8 billion outcomes. In Go, it is 64 trillion. Looking ahead 14 moves involves 10 thousand trillion possibilities or in Go 100,000,000,000,000,0000.

Although an attempt has been made to create the computer breakthrough for Go, the programs are no contest for even the average human plays. So computers play chess; humans play Go!

As humans, we had better look for our intellectual validation somewhere else besides game playing. But my guess is that we are still way, way smarter than a machine at coming up with reasons to avoid work. Oh, that reminds me. I have to leave my cubicle and go and get a diet coke.

Author's Note: This article was posted to the Science Chicago blog by Heather, one of our correspondents.


Editor's Note: For more blogs from Dr. Rabiah, visit Science Chicago's website at: http://www.sciencechicagoblog.com


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