Skip to Content

The Games Computers Play

With 18 years of data, a checkers-playing computer program knows every possible winning move.

A team of computer scientists at the University of Alberta has created a computer program that’s incapable of losing a game of checkers. An opponent’s only hope is for a draw. To create the system, the team spent 18 years processing every possible move–in this case, 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 checkers positions. If your eyes got lost in all those zeroes, that’s 500 billion billion. Such an effort is known as a brute-force method because it entails using an algorithm to excavate a definite answer–is this a winning move?–out of billions and billions of possible outcomes deep in a decision tree. An earlier version of the checkers program, which won the World Man-Machine Championship in 1994, used a different style based on probabilistic inferences about winning strategies.

It has been slightly more than 10 years since Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in chess using a brute-force technique similar to the Alberta team’s Chinook program. And since then, there has been much debate as to whether these types of programs are intelligent and, if so, whether we are a less unique and therefore less precious species than we believe ourselves to be. But we have long known that a calculator can do a sum faster than any human, so why should we feel threatened by any game-playing software?

In 1814, the mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace hypothesized the existence of a supercomputer capable of using a brute-force method to think through all the possible movements within the universe, from the smallest all the way up to the largest bodies. For such a computer–it became known as a demon–Laplace said, “Nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

Could it be that some feel uneasy about losing games to artificial intelligence not because they have to share what they believe to be a uniquely human capacity but, rather, because each adversarial thinking machine is potentially a Laplace mini-demon?

While you ponder that, why not play, and probably lose, a game of checkers with Chinook?

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

One insider says the company’s current staffing isn’t able to sustain the platform.

Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve.

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not

Elon said no thanks to using his mega-constellation for navigation. Researchers went ahead anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.