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Scientists try to solve ancient board game

by Paul Jay, CBC News online

Chess lovers revel in their game's status as the brainiest of leisure activities, but even they had to admit some of the fun has been taken out of the game after Deep Blue and, more recently, Deep Fritz, started beating world champions.

Those in pursuit of a game of true human intuition could always fall back on Go, as the popular Asian board game's subtleties had thus far eluded programmers. While Go-playing software could beat amateur players, they had failed to compete against even mid-level opponents. Two Hungarian scientists, however, believe they are a step closer to playing in the big leagues.

According to a story in Reuters, the scientists at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' computing lab SZTAKI have come up with an algorithm that helps a computer compete with professional players on a nine-by-nine square board. As the story explains:

Whereas a chess programme can evaluate a scenario by assigning numerical values to pieces — say 9 to the queen and 1 to a pawn — and to the tactical worth of their position, that technique is not available to a Go machine. In Go all marbles are identical and scenarios are too complex, so the computer has to think forward all the way till the end of the game and emulate the outcome of each alternative move, whose number rises exponentially with the number of turns.

Most professional players use a 19-by-19 board, a level of complexity the programmers admit their computer isn't quite ready to tackle.

While we root for technological advances in general, we hope Go can continue to thrive as a person to person pursuit. And that this guy never decides to take a crack at it.

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Richard Hough

Chess is one of the most intensively-studied computer problems of the last 50 years. I believe the reason computers are not as capable in playing Go is solely because of the lack of time and effort spent on the problem.

No doubt when computers are able to beat Go masters, people will claim only games like tic-tac-toe and steeplechase have the "subtleties " that show "true human intuition".

Posted February 26, 2007 11:26 AM

Timothy Mott

Ottawa

Regarding Mr. Hough's comments:

Chess and go are fundamentally different games. It is not for lack of trying that computers are mediocre go players -- there have long been substantial prizes offered to the person who can create a strong computer opponent.

There are many aspects of go that make it extremely difficult to analyse, to wit:
the number of possibilities available on each turn, the size of the board, the complexity of determining whether a given group of stones is dead or alive, and the winning condition that takes into account every square on the board.

Moves played at the beginning of a game of go can have an impact on the flow of the game three hundred moves later. Large groups can be sacrificed in surprising ways to gain advantages elsewhere. The big picture is all-important, and computers simply don't see it.

Posted November 28, 2007 10:59 PM

Rafael Espericueta

The number of possible chess games has been estimated to be about 10^125, whereas the number of possible go games is closer to 10^300. That's a HUGE difference.

In the best-selling novel, "Shibumi", is the comment "Chess is to go as double-entry accounting is to poetry". Indeed!

Posted November 29, 2008 07:54 AM

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