Computer edges human for world checkers title

August 26, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A computer took home the title as the world's best checkers player yesterday, but it left artificial intelligence researchers without the decisive victory they had hoped would demonstrate the advances of their field.

The machine, called Chinook, fended off a challenge by playing the No. 2-ranked human player to tie yesterday.

Chinook, a program running on a computer made by Silicon Graphics Inc., and Don Lafferty each won one game during the tournament and they tied 18 times. Mr. Lafferty, 61, a math teacher from Kentucky, needed a victory to take the title.

The outcome was disappointing for both sides in the closely watched man vs. machine challenge because it left open the question of whether a machine can beat the best human checkers player in the world.

Chinook won its title by default last Friday after a physician ordered the reigning champion, Marion Tinsley, 67, a retired math teacher, to stop playing for health reasons. Mr. Tinsley since has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is undergoing treatment. At Mr. Tinsley's urging, the tournament with Mr. Lafferty began Saturday.

"It was very unfortunate," said Jonathan Schaeffer, a programmer of Chinook and an artificial intelligence expert from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. "It took the wind out of our sails when Dr. Tinsley fell ill. We've always wanted to be the world champion, but we're not happy with the way it happened."

Still, Mr. Schaeffer says Chinook has proved itself to the artificial intelligence community, which wants to draw lessons from the checkers match for further research into machines that can mimic the human brain. Among those lessons is the reality that it takes an awful lot of computing to get machines to do even the simplest things humans do.

Chinook played Mr. Tinsley to a draw for six matches before he fell ill. Two years ago, Mr. Tinsley easily defeated a more primitive version of Chinook.

Mr. Schaeffer said Chinook was programmed to know 250 billion checkers positions, and it learns more moves every day.

"The computer gets smarter every day, and human players like Dr. Tinsley and Lafferty just get older," he said.

"It put a lot of strain on me," Mr. Lafferty said. "It's nearly got human capabilities now. Some people like to play eyeball to eyeball. But I like this machine. I think humans and computers are compatible."

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