It’s been almost 20 years since IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat the reigning world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, for the first time under standard tournament rules. Since then, chess-playing computers have become significantly stronger, leaving the best humans little chance even against a modern chess engine running on a smartphone.
But while computers have become faster, the way chess engines work has not changed. Their power relies on brute force, the process of searching through all possible future moves to find the best next one.
Of course, no human can match that or come anywhere close. While Deep Blue was searching some 200 million positions per second, Kasparov was probably searching no more than five a second. And yet he played at essentially the same level. Clearly, humans have a trick up their sleeve that computers have yet to master.
This trick is in evaluating chess positions and narrowing down the most profitable avenues of search. That dramatically simplifies the computational task because it prunes the tree of all possible moves to just a few branches.
Computers have never been good at this, but today that changes thanks to the work of Matthew Lai at Imperial College London. Lai has created an artificial intelligence machine called Giraffe that has taught itself to play chess by evaluating positions much more like humans and in an entirely different way to conventional chess engines.