Sunday, June 12, 2011

Man vs Machine

An IBM supercomputer took on Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in an epic battle of humans vs. artificial intelligence on Monday. But the Jeopardy! contest was only the latest in a long-running battle. TIME takes a look at other competitions that tested humans' abilities against machines

Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

In 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov took on an IBM RS/6000 SP known as Deep Blue. Kasparov called it "the monster" and, TIME reported, "spent much of the week grimacing and holding his head in frustration as he sat across the board from some stone-faced IBM scientist taking instructions from the computer." While Kasparov won the match, Deep Blue did win one of the games, marking the first time that a computer had bested a world champion under tournament conditions. "I could feel — I could smell — a new kind of intelligence across the table," Kasparov wrote in TIME. But, he concluded in that article, "Although I think I did see some signs of intelligence, it's a weird kind, an inefficient, inflexible kind that makes me think I have a few years left." He didn't. In 1997, an upgraded Deep Blue, one that could evaluate 200 million chess positions per second, won its rematch against Kasparov.

Dave vs. HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't involve a man-vs.-machine showdown so much as a cool, calm man-vs.-machine murder plot. HAL 9000, a spaceship supercomputer so intelligent that it even appears to have human emotions, discovers that its human companions are planning to deactivate it. So when one of the astronauts performs a spacewalk, HAL sets him adrift and cuts off his oxygen supply. The second astronaut deprograms the murderous machine, despite the computer's monotone pleas for mercy

John Henry vs. the Steam Drill

For those who need a refresher on this American folk icon, the story goes like this: During the 1800s, railroads started to snake across the U.S., and bands of men would smooth out the land by driving stakes into rock with a big ole hammer (and then filling the holes with explosives). John Henry, an African American, was supposed to be the biggest — in spirit, in appetite, in the bulging of biceps — and best driver of all. When companies started to employ steam-powered drills to make better time, Henry decided to challenge one to a race. He won but, tragically, died of exhaustion following his miraculous feat. The story is based in fact, but the details change with the telling — how big Henry was, for example, or whether he was driving spikes or blasting rock. Regardless, his story remains the benchmark for the many human-machine battles since.

Jeopardy! Pros vs. Watson

Although one might suspect that the 70-year-old Alex Trebek — who performs his hosting duties with almost mechanical perfection and looks eternally 50 — is some sort of Canadian robot, Jeopardy!'s first official machine went on air this week. An IBM supercomputer, which goes by the name of Watson (after the IBM founder), is taking on the show's most epic champions in the nerdiest battle of the millennium. The kick is that this isn't just about a computer having answers stored up like as many flash cards; it's about the machine being able to understand human language and logically retrieve answers, Homo sapien–style. But that's not the only reason the computer is super: its hardware is reportedly the size of 10 refrigerators, and it can perform 80 trillion operations per second. (It's hard to know quite what that means, but it sure sounds impressive.) Ken Jennings, the longest-running champ, and Brad Rutter, the champion who took home the most green, didn't fare so well in a practice round last month. But with a $1 million prize and the dignity of the human race now on the line, one might note that practice rounds don't count.

Scrabble Showdown: Quackle vs. David Boys

Using words like qadi (a Muslim judge), anuria (the nonpassage of urine) and alif (a type of spinal fusion), a software program called Quackle beat David Boys 482-465 in the final round of the 2006 Scrabble Open in Toronto. Boys, a computer programmer who won the world Scrabble championship in 1995, got the chance to battle Quackle in the finals after besting some 100 competitors in an 18-round match leading up to the human-vs.-computer showdown. Boys started off strong, beating Quackle, an open-source program whose chief designers included students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the first two games of the best-of-five series. But Quackle came back strong and won the last three rounds. In one especially tricky move, the computer played the word deviating by connecting two disconnected I's. For his part, Boys displayed a touch of sore-loser spirit after the loss, saying, "It's still better to be a human than to be a computer."

Chinook vs. the Checkers Champ

A group of scientists at Canada's Alberta University were the brains behind Chinook — a computer program designed to beat human competitors at checkers. In 1992, Chinook played world champion Marion Tinsley, who had remained nearly undefeated for more than four decades. Tinsley pulled out a victory that time around, and during a 1994 rematch, the human was forced to withdraw from the match for what would turn out to be cancer. Yet Chinook would become so good at checkers, so powerful at beating human competitors, that the program was eventually retired from play.

The Terminator

The Terminator and its sequels were the archetype of the man-vs.-machine clash. Initially set in a postapocalyptic future where the remnants of a beleaguered humanity hold out against a legion of robots bent on their total annihilation, the series brings the story back — through various feats of time travel — into the present. There, a robot assassin, in the bulky, inhuman shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is sent to kill the woman who will give birth to a man destined to lead mankind against the coming robot onslaught. What follows is bone-crushing, exoskeleton-melting mayhem — an epic dose of man-on-machine ultraviolence that rendered Schwarzenegger not just a governor, but a Governator.

Field Goals: Joe Nedney vs. Ziggy

Geeks and football have rarely been a winning combination, as anyone who has ever seen Revenge of the Nerds or Glee can attest. But that didn't stop a competition-robot team from taking on a professional football player in a kickoff showdown last year. Ziggy, a 340-lb. powerhouse in the robot-fighting world, was pitted against the San Francisco 49ers' kicker Joe Nedney. The competition, held in the run-up to the seventh annual RoboGames, a robot sports extravaganza, started at the 20-yard line, and as each made the kick, they gradually moved back. It was at the 40-yard line that a strong wind hit and Nedney's experience trumped Ziggy's mechanisms. But the human was a gracious winner, pointing out the robot's strong suits. "He could probably take all the boos from the fans and the ridicule by the media with a pretty straight face. He probably wouldn't go to bed upset about it," he told Wired. "This Ziggy's got quite a poker face."

Stock Traders vs. Terminals

These days, watching the floor of the New York Stock Exchange from one of the balconies hovering above the room is about as exciting as having box seats for the local library check-out line. There are no swelling pits of traders screaming orders and exchanging pieces of paper; rather, there are people with tablets making trades electronically, many coordinating with computerized programs that shift millions of shares in a fraction of a second. The world of trading has been going increasingly digital for decades, and while it may make the trades go faster — getting rid of those fat ole fingers and their fat ole commissions — some also worry that it puts the market more at risk. Many pointed to overzealous algorithms last May when there was a wild 1,000-point market swing in a single afternoon. But while computers may not possess the virtues of thoughtfulness and temperance, machines that do so much to increase the volume of trades while reducing prices aren't going to lose this battle. One just hopes Michael Douglas doesn't get replaced by a relative of HAL in Wall Street 3: Computers Don't Sleep Either.

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