Friday, January 18, 2008

Computer Saccades

Via a link to a link to a link to someone's link in the comments section to a post on Reason Hit and Run, there's this really cool web app that shows you the computer's thinking pattern as it plays you in Chess.

Have fun with it here.

The point, really, is that it's pretty useless on the whole. It tells you what you always suspected: that computer chess is hugely "brute force," consisting of considering a staggering combination of moves. Silicon computers are massive speed, smallish memory capacity, whereas human brains (which are computers) are slow speed, huge memory capacity. The mystery in Chess is sorta why humans are able to do it so well at all. What tips us that certain lines of thought are probably fruitless early enough to stop them and move on to something else?

It's sort of an urban myth in Japan (I say that because I haven't been able to verify this on the web) that best all-time Shogi player Habu Yoshiharu is at his most relaxed when playing. That is, it's widely said that brain scans of him playing show that he's thinking less than normal. Maybe true, maybe not, but it certainly squares with the idea that whatever humans are doing when they're doing things like playing Chess well, it's manifestly NOT "brute force." I can't remember which of Habu's biographers said it, but I remember reading a book about Habu in Japan that said something like "it's an open secret in the Shogi world that the move you make is just the one you like. There isn't any great reasoning that goes into it - rather, one just occurs to you and you spend all your clock time justifying it to yourself." I can vouch for that for myself. I play Chess pretty well. I'm not great by any means, CERTAINLY nothing like a pro - but I do a good job. And that's pretty much how I play too, yeah. Some move just "seems right." There's one that I just want to do for whatever reason. And most of what looks like "thinking" to an outside observer is just me playing devil's advocate with myself, trying to figure out what would go wrong if I did that move that I "want" to do.

Still, click the link and enjoy a round. It's fun watching the computer play through pretty much every possibility before making up its mind.

All of this, of course, is occasioned by the fact that Bobby Fischer's just died. Not the great loss for the Chess world that it probably should be (he hasn't played professionally in decades), but a great loss nonetheless. My favorite alltime Chess game is one of Fischer's. I haven't been able to find the transcript online, but if I run across it I will post it in an update as a my memorial.

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