May 22, 2007

10th Anniversary: Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov

Deep Bluevs.Kasparov

It's the one of those great moments in history that will be more avidly recalled a century from now. We are too early in the beginnings of the digital society yet, to appreciate the milestone. Here's my little commemoration piece to mark the event.

On May 11, 1997 for the first time a computer effected a series defeat to the highest ranked chess prodigy ever. There have been a lot of controversies and arguments ever since, but the fact remains - the machine beat the best available human for the very first time. At the time I was very troubled, wondering what this means for humanity.


You can skip this section if you know chess.

Chess is a board game played by two players, involving strategy and said to originated in India as chaturanga. The starting position of the chess board looks like the image below:

Chess Board

Each kind of piece on the board has it's own defined movement. For example, bishops move along the diagonals, rooks move along the rows and columns, and so on. The Opening - both players start with a handful of possible moves to place their pieces out into the board using a choice of defence and offence to exert their influence over the board. The number of variations in the moves grows along with the game's complexity. Then, the players approach conflict situations and start taking out each other's pieces - the Middlegame. They eventually approach a stage called the Endgame, where the outcome of the game is to be decided. Examples of these endgames used to be printed next to the crossword puzzles in most news publications for readers to solve.


Chess at the professional level perhaps is one of the most intense exercises of the human brain. The World Chess Federation (FIDE) currenlty uses the Elo system to rank chess players from both past and present. Generally one must have an Elo rating above 2500 to be ranked a Grandmaster. Russian Gary Kasparov's highest Elo rating of 2851 is yet to be surpassed. Kasparov officially retired two years ago, and the current best ranked player is India's Viswanathan Anand (best Elo rating of 2803).

Grandmasters have the strategies and positions of hundreds if not thousands of games available in their minds. Some are capable of playing multiple players simultaneously in exhibition matches. Others are experts at playing games blindfolded, or rather without looking at the board.

The (Re)Match

The 1997 Deep Blue-Kasparov match was actually a re-match. The previous year, Kasparov had comprehensively beaten Deep Blue 4-2. IBM had wanted another go, and Kasparov sportily consented.

Kasparov won the first match satisfactorily, and commentators noted that the computer played like a computer - that is, making valid moves but not performing any long-term strategic manouvers. Score 1-0 to Kasparov. In the second game, Kasparov played 'passively' and did not launch any major move. This time Deep Blue seemed to have out-played Kasparov and he resigned, complimenting his opponent. Later, other grandmaster showed Kasparov that he had given up a game that was heading for a draw. Score 1-1. Games 3, 4 and 5 all ended in draws. Observers felt that Kasparov wasn't displaying his usual flair and seemed a bit sullen. Deep Blue team recieved quiet complements from Kasparov. Score: 2.5-2.5

Kasparov v Deep Blue

Then came the historic Game 6, which lasted less than 30 minutes. Here to everyone's astonishment Kasparov made a common error during the opening, which eventually led to a shock decisive loss. The famous score 3.5-2.5 to Deep Blue.

After the Match - Notes, Debates and Controversies

So are machines now really better than people at chess? Many people still think that it's not true and that this match hasn't proven anything yet.

Kasparov, was particularly concerned with Game 2, he was convinced that there's something fishy with the way the computer had suddenly been able to change strategy mid-game, as this was not what 'a computer is supposed to play like'. He did say that if the computer fairly won that match then the Deep Blue team should win a Nobel prize. Kasparov's requests for printouts of the computer's thought processes were not responded to by the Deep Blue team. Kasparov also felt that the event was turning from an experiment to a publicity stunt for IBM.

The Deep Blue machine was not a machine that was just taught the basic rules of chess and that could calculate up to the grandmaster level on its own. It used Neural Network programming to incorporate previously played games of chess and evaluate moves. Kasparov once said, "Sometimes the computer plays very human moves." It was trained by at least two known Grandmasters. I think of Deep Blue as human-trained Artificial Intelligence (AI). But then again, is it really AI or some supercomputer-based advanced calculator, without any actual cognition?

Another not-that-well-known fact is that in 1980, Professor Edward Fredkin, Carnegie Mellon University Computer Science Department, had set up a prize offer of $100,000 to the first computer to beat a world chess champion. IBM's Deep Blue team went home with that one.

Conclusion: let there be a real test

Viswanathan Anand summed it up best - "He had two options: to play like Kasparov or to play like 'Mr. Anti Deep Blue.' The former runs the risk of playing to the strengths of the machines, the latter that the human ends up as disoriented as the machine. Humans, too, play weaker in unfamiliar situations and though they may find their way around better, machines can compensate for that with brute force.

Kasparov chose the latter. Unfortunately, as a result, we were never able to see the fabulous calculating abilities of Deep Blue. Not once did we see a spectacular example of brute force producing a solution that differed significantly from that suggested by intuition."

Considering that Deep Blue could analyse 200,000,000 moves per second and Kasparov could only analyse 3, I still think it's quite amazing what the human mind can match with its 'intuition'. It also validates Chess as admissible arena for the Mind versus Machine encounter.

After the match IBM stowed away the computer, disbanded the Deep Blue and refused Kasparov's requests for a rematch. Kasparov retired in 2005, and these days he is devising strategies to take the Kremlin.

The Deep Blue - Kasparov type face-off needs to be repeated. Perhaps a corporation other than IBM can enter their supercomputing machine in an offical chess tournament, to play with other reigning chess grandmasters. Then we would really get the real picture. We could also get a peek at the levels machines have reached 10 years on, and if all those engineering specficiations, statistics and figures mean anything in human terms.

Footnote: My interest in chess

My father is a passionate chess player and he taught me the game early on. Every now and then we have an intense game, with my father mostly prevailing. I had joined a Chess club during my early school years. Come to think about it, it was an interesting setting - studying in an American-run school in communist Romania. The Karpov vs. Kasparov rivalry, with all the ideologies and politics mixed up in it was very entertaining. We also learned about the strange case of the troubled chess prodigy - the American, Bobby Fischer. We played against machines (those early Apple machines I talked about) as well as other members. Being a computer geek, I was more comfortable playing machines instead of people. I usually let people have it easier, whereas I was hard on the machines.

Some interesting sites to explore chess are:

May 13, 2007

Armageddon 2007 in Wellington

OK, my hand's been force-ed. I had been lazying around not putting up the pics from the Armageddon 2007 event in Wellington. But thanks to my pal Monty's initiative, I better get around to it. There are always more than one side to a story.

'Armageddon' is held every year in Wellington, it's a showcase of art, technologies, media and of course toys and collectibles related to the imaginative worlds formed in human minds. This is the first time I visited one of these. We got to meet Billy Dee Williams, the actor who played Lando Calrissian in Star Wars. He was pretty nice - smiled and shook hands.

meeting Billy Dee Williams Star Wars Lando

We also got to meet with the actor John Rhys Davies - he played Gimli in Lord of the Rings. I told him I'm a big fan, and the big man winked back, while putting sugar into his coffee.

John Rhys Davies Gimli

Most of the cast of Pan's Labyrinth was also present, but we had no idea who was who.

There were stalls showcasing the gadgetry that goes into making the costumes - rubber masks, clothes and props. There were lines of computers with enthusiasts trying out the latest computer games. Sony was showcasing its latest Playstation 3 gaming console. There was a team from Massey University Institute of Technology and Engineering demonstrating a robot that can play a ball game on a board. I chatted with the project Professor, and he said that they sometimes have teams of robots playing each other. The robots were controlled by a remote computer, rather than being autonomous devices. An overhead camera mapped the board and the position of the robot and relayed that to the controller.

There were also plenty of vendors selling computer games, board games, DVDs. I completed my collection of Matrix movies, by picking up a DVD of the first movie. There were plenty of characters from the movies walking around, there were competitions happening on stage involving re-enactments of favorite scenes.

The New Zealand Army was in here too. They were letting people try out their training simulations. These looked like games but responded much more sluggishly, probably more realistically. All wars should remain that way - games inside machines - and not spill out messily into the real world.

I had really come to take a look at the graphic artists and their work. Comic art has a lot of influence on contemporary culture. Look at all the latest movies such as 300.

In the end, I just felt a couple of decades younger, and let myself go into the fun atmosphere. There's a slideshow of more pictures below, none of which are to be take seriously, of course. ;)

Monty's take on things:

May 5, 2007

Mindmeister - Mind Maps try to go Web2.0

MindMeister Screenshot

Just a few years ago, many computer technology gurus thought that delivering Rich Interface applications, such as Office applications online was not worthwhile. That the interaction would be very limited and the online application would not provide a satisfactory response time. Now with broadband, tecnologies such as AJAX and applications such as Google Documents that door was been thrown wide open. One of the latest, an online mind mapping service, Mindmeister, has just been launched. I had been involved in testing the beta version and recieved the following email on May 2nd, 2007:

" We are very proud to announce that after a thorough private beta phase MindMeister finally went live last night at 11pm CEST!"

The free basic account lets you create upto 6 mind maps, to get unlimited you'll have to go premium. Mindmeister includes a Web2.0 component by allowing you to share your mind maps with others and work collaboratively.

MindMeister Screenshot

The premium account also additionally allows the user to export the mind map in formats such as FreeMind and Mindjet Mindmanager, the user can include the map in blogs and websites, kill the advertising, and provides full SSL encryption.

The limit of this application to just 6 mind maps for free is against the spirit of the times. It severely limits any true usability for most users and will hamper the success of this endeavour. Perhaps sometime in the future, the boys with the big cash - Google or its equivalent - will buy this company out, set the application free with unlimited storage and unleash its true potential.

May 4, 2007

We won't do anything to XP, they said ...

Vista In XP Out

If you're planning to get a computer and obtain a legitimate copy of Microsoft Windows XP for it, better do it before the January 2008, because Microsoft is discontinuing the sales of Windows XP past that date. Support will continue to be provided for the XP operating system, though.

The new Microsoft operating system, Windows Vista, is proving slow on existing machines and still incompatible with a lot of hardware due to a lack of device drivers. Due to this, many users who switched to Vista are trying to move back to XP. There's a space being created, opportunity for other operating systems - Linux, Solaris & Co to spruce up their act - i.e. become user-friendly, attractive and compatible - and enter the fray.

Pull XP, Push Vista
Is Vista in Trouble