Can a machine play chess?
Feb. 16, 2015
by Mark Ollig

Alan Turing asked this question during a lecture at the London Mathematical Society Feb. 20, 1947.

Of course, today, all of us know the answer to Mr. Turing’s question is, “yes.”

Machines capable of playing chess were discussed by Turing as a way for testing “intelligent machinery.”

Today, we refer to it as artificial intelligence.

In 1948, Alan Turing wrote a report titled Intelligent Machinery.

“I propose to investigate the question as to whether it is possible for machinery to show intelligent behavior,” Turing wrote.

To me, this sentence reveals Turing throwing down the gauntlet, and challenging the status quo of when such statements would invoke others to dismiss the idea, saying it was not possible.

Turing also quotes typical attitudes of the time, when people considered machines non-thinking objects, and were using catchphrases, such as “acting like a machine,” and “purely mechanical behavior.”

As I read through Turing’s report, he questions resolute beliefs from 1948, including how some people were unwilling to admit the possibility of any “rivals in intellectual power.”

Turing states intellectual people would have more to lose if they admitted machines could challenge their own intelligence.

He makes the similarity of machine intelligence challenging human intelligence, by using the comparison of an animal species’ intelligence, overriding human intelligence.

Turing also wrote how construction of intelligent machines would be analogous to “Promethean irreverence,” and going against religious belief.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Prometheus as “a Titan who is chained and is tortured by Zeus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humankind.”

Is Turing suggesting by creating intelligence in a machine greater than within a human, that this would be interpreted as obtaining something which had been in the exclusive possession of a higher deity?

He seems to be presenting a very thought-provoking concern which we are still addressing today.

Turing acknowledges the apprehensions and uneasiness about thinking machines, and says intelligence is an emotional state, rather than a mathematical one.

We need to remember Turing is speaking during the late 1940s, at a time when machines were being used for tedious, repetitive jobs.

He does, however, describe how one piece of new computing machinery, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer(ENIAC), is able to compute enormously large numbers, over long periods of time, with no failures.

Turing may have been trying to make an analogy about the logical processing ability of the computer, and its similarity to how the human brain solves problems.

He said some people feel intelligence in machinery would simply be a reflection of its creator.

Turing counters this reasoning by comparing it with a discovery, independently made by a student, being fully credited to the teacher.

He said while the teacher would be pleased with how his method of teaching helped the student with the discovery, the teacher himself would not take actual credit for the discovery.

It is during this part of the report, that Turing talks about “paper machines” for people to play chess against.

“Playing against such a machine gives a definite feeling that one is pitting one’s wits against something alive,” Turing said.

Mr. Turing, this I do understand.

It was Christmas Eve 1982; our family was celebrating the holiday at my mother’s home, in the house I grew up in.

One present I received from my mother was a digital computer chess set called the Sensory Chess Challenger.

She knew I had regularly played chess with my father, who had passed away earlier in the year.

My dad and I would sit across from each other at the kitchen table, each of us with our cup of coffee, and play chess; sometimes for hours.

When the Christmas festivities ended later that evening, I got back to my apartment, took the computer chess game console out of the box, plugged it in, set up the chess pieces, turned it on, and began playing chess against a computer for the first time.

I was awe-struck at being able to play chess with a computer.

It was surprising to me how the computer was tactically, and seemingly intelligently responding to every chess move I made.

The computer was an excellent chess player.

With help from quite a few cups of coffee, I ended up playing several chess games throughout the night, against what appeared to be an intelligent machine.

Alan Turing was right.

It did feel like I was pitting my wits against something alive.

While playing chess with the computer, I was also remembering the times I played chess with my dad.

There’s a photo of the Sensory Chess Challenger at http://tinyurl.com/bitschess.

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