Humans Can Still Outsmart Computers

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When was the last time you won a game of chess against your computer? Unless youÂ?re a chess grandmaster you probably have no chance. Even top rated grandmasters routinely lose to computers these days. But donÂ?t give up so easily, you might still have a chance.

When was the last time you won a game of chess against your computer or even your PDA. Unless you’re a chess grandmaster you probably have no chance. Even top rated grandmasters routinely lose to computers these days. That’s because computer speeds have reached the point where most humans can easily be out calculated in chess, checkers or just about any other game that can be played on a chess board. But don’t give up so easily. A new game called Arimaa turns the board upside down for computers. In a recent challenge match, humans proved they can still outsmart a computer over a chess board when the world's best Arimaa-playing program was defeated 7-1 by a top-rated human player, Frank Heinemann.

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 Hyland Software (http://www.onbase.com), a leading developer of document management 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. Although more than 30 AI developers are working on 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, Omar Syed and his son Aamir created Arimaa 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." 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. "This is the second match since the announcement of the challenge and the second time that the humans have so overwhelmingly won the match. These games 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."

Visitors to the http://www.arimaa.com site can view the challenge match games. There is also an animated 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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Omar Syed
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