Humans Regain Victory in Man vs. Machine Match

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A $10,000 challenge to the Artificial Intelligence research community was defended when a human player defeated the computer in an eight game Man vs. Machine match.

This victory shows that even though computers can now perform billions of calculations per second, they are still very far behind when it comes to making long-term strategic decisions -- especially when there are a lot of creative options to choose from

Ever since chess champion Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997, humans have not been able to regain a victory against computers in an official Man vs. Machine match. All recent chess matches between the top human players and top-ranked computer programs have ended in draws. However on February 13th, humans reclaimed their dominance over the chess board when the world’s best Arimaa-playing program was defeated 8-0 by a top-rated Arimaa player, Omar Syed.

The eight game series was overseen by the International Computer Games Association (ICGA - http://www.icga.org), which also oversees the official Man vs. Machine chess matches. The match was co-sponsored by SpaceX (http://www.spacex.com), a company revolutionizing low cost-commercial access to space.

“Board game matches between man and computer are a valuable test bed for artificial intelligence,” according to Jeroen Donkers of the ICGA. “The Arimaa challenge match is a remarkable addition to the list of recent Man vs. Machine matches, since the human defeated the computer with an overwhelming score.”

The program considered millions of possible positions and took about three minutes to make each move. Syed was looking only two to three moves ahead and made most of his moves within two minutes. The computer was even given an extra piece advantage in the final game.

"This victory shows that even though computers can now perform billions of calculations per second, they are still very far behind when it comes to making long-term strategic decisions -- especially when there are a lot of creative options to choose from," said Syed. "We have a long way to go in understanding this astonishing human capability and replicating it in software."

A $10,000 prize was announced in November 2002 for any developer of a program that could defeat a selected human player in an official Arimaa match before the year 2020. It was a challenge to the AI community in an effort to promote research and further develop the intelligence of computers.

Although more than 20 AI enthusiasts are working on developing such a program, so far only a few have produced programs that play well enough to challenge a human. The best of these was developed by David Fotland of Smart Games (http://www.smart-games.com). Fotland is a veteran game programmer who has also developed a world-champion Go program.

“Initially I thought I would be able to win the challenge, not because Arimaa was easy, but because it was a new game, and the people playing it were not strong yet,” said Fotland. “For a while my program was as strong as or stronger than any person, but the human players improved rapidly and developed some new strategic concepts that were very difficult to capture in a computer program.”

A former NASA computer engineer with a Masters in Artificial Intelligence, Syed and his son Aamir designed the new game after seeing Garry Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue in 1997.

"We wanted to show that humans are still capable of out-playing a computer using just a standard chess set. I consider myself an average strategic game player. So this victory means even more to humanity," commented Syed. "I think many people will be pleased to find a game where they can actually beat the computer after a little practice. There aren’t many games left now where you can do that."

The $10,000 challenge still stands; developers will have another chance to try for the prize next year. "I would like to see someone else take on the computer next year," said Syed. "I’m sure there are many people out there who can play this game much better than I can."

Visitors to the http://www.arimaa.com site can replay the match games. There is also a Flash tutorial which shows how to play the game as well as a gameroom where visitors can play against programs and other players from around the world.

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Sameer Siddiqui
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