(Roughly) Daily

“Eternity is a child playing, playing checkers; the kingdom belongs to a child.”*…

 

Marion Tinsley—math professor, minister, and the best checkers player in the world—sat across a game board from a computer, dying.

Tinsley had been the world’s best for 40 years, a time during which he’d lost a handful of games to humans, but never a match. It’s possible no single person had ever dominated a competitive pursuit the way Tinsley dominated checkers. But this was a different sort of competition, the Man-Machine World Championship.

His opponent was Chinook, a checkers-playing program programmed by Jonathan Schaeffer, a round, frizzy-haired professor from the University of Alberta, who operated the machine. Through obsessive work, Chinook had become very good. It hadn’t lost a game in its last 125—and since they’d come close to defeating Tinsley in 1992, Schaeffer’s team had spent thousands of hours perfecting his machine.

The night before the match, Tinsley dreamt that God spoke to him and said, “I like Jonathan, too,” which had led him to believe that he might have lost exclusive divine backing.

So, they sat in the now-defunct Computer Museum in Boston. The room was large, but the crowd numbered in the teens. The two men were slated to play 30 matches over the next two weeks. The year was 1994, before Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue or Lee Sedol and AlphaGo

The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence: “How Checkers Was Solved.”

* Heraclitus

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As we triangulate a triple jump, we might send precisely-programmed birthday greetings to Joseph F. Engelberger; he was born on this date in 1925.  An engineer and entrepreneur who is widely considered “the father of robotics,” he worked from a patented technology created by George Devol to create the first industrial robot; then, with a partner, created Unimation, the first industrial robotics company.  The Robotics Industries Association presents the Joseph F. Engelberger Awards annually to “persons who have contributed outstandingly to the furtherance of the science and practice of robotics.”

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