Wicked cool man vs. machine moments

As IBM’s Watson steps into the 'Jeopardy!' ring it takes a lot of history with it

As IBM's Watson computer digs in for its competition on "Jeopardy!" this week, we are reminded that this is the first in a long series of classic man vs. machine moments. Here we have a look at some of the famous real and not so real man vs. machine action.

The "Jeopardy!" King? If the preliminary test rounds are any indication, the IBM natural language supercomputer known as Watson will give former "Jeopardy!" human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter a serious run for their money this week. Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, is programmed to rival the human ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed and accuracy. Watson's software runs on IBM POWER7 servers optimized to handle the massive number of tasks it must perform at rapid speeds to analyze complex language and deliver correct responses to "Jeopardy!" clues. IBM has been prepping Watson for the show by playing more than 50 "sparring games" against former "Jeopardy!" Tournament of Champions contestants and Watson has passed the same "Jeopardy!" contestant test that humans take to qualify to play on the show. "Jeopardy!" requires forms of reasoning that are quite sophisticated, using metaphors, puns and puzzles that go beyond basic understanding of the language. As a challenge problem, "Jeopardy!" will stretch the state of the art, IBM stated.

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How about a nice game of chess? In what was certainly one of the most celebrated chess matches of all time, IBM's Deep Blue computer beat world champ Garry Kasparov for the first time in 1996. The IBM machine was able to calculate 200 million chess moves per second, IBM claimed. According to Computerworld: "Deep Blue's tour de force was the culmination of an eight-year, multimillion-dollar research project at IBM that led directly to advances in chip design, parallel-processing techniques and algorithms. That research continues as part of IBM's $100 million Blue Gene project, which during the next decade will build a machine operating at 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second (1 petaFLOPS) to attack problems such as protein folding, molecular dynamics and drug design." Kasparov famously came back to win the best of the six-game match. In 2003 Kasparov and the IBM Deep Junior computer played to a draw in a $1 million International Chess Federation match.

Poker face: In 2007 researchers from the University of Alberta played their Polaris poker system against poker professionals Phil Laak and Ali Eslami at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, B.C. The competition consisted of four duplicate matches, with 500 hands per match. In each duplicate match, the same cards were dealt to both pairs of players, human and bot, but with the seating reversed. After 16 hours of play over two days, Polaris tied the first round, won the second and lost the last two. At the time, Jonathan Schaeffer, leader of the computer science team that created Polaris, said: "We have developed a format that has helped us factor out luck and make it into a scientific experiment to determine how good humans are relative to the best program in the world." It was actually the second time Laak had faced a University of Alberta poker program. In a 2005 match in Las Vegas, Laak beat Vexbot, a predecessor of Polaris, partly because he played better, but also because he had far more luck that day, as Laak stated.

Checkers, perhaps? Maybe it was something in the water, because University of Alberta's Schaeffer and many others also developed a checkers playing program that the university ultimately retired because it was unbeatable. According to the university's Web site, the Chinook project began in 1989 with the goal of developing a program capable of defeating the human World Checkers Champion. In 1990, Chinook became the first program in any game to win the right to play for a human world championship. The program lost the championship match in 1992, but became champion in 1994. By 1996, it became clear that the program was much stronger than any human, and Chinook was retired. Chinook won the World Man-Machine Championship (three years before the Deep Blue chess match) and in 1996 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Chinook as the first program to win a human world championship, the university stated.

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Your move: According to the Backgammon.net Web site, a programmer by the name of Hans Berliner developed a backgammon program known as BKG that beat then world champion Luigi Villa. It won the match, 7-1, becoming the first computer program to defeat a world champion in any game, although this was mostly a matter of luck, as the computer happened to get better dice rolls than its opponent did in that match. According to the Web site, in the 1980s creators of backgammon-playing software began to have even more success with a neural network approach. TD-Gammon, developed by Gerald Tesauro of IBM, was the first of these computer programs to play at or close to the expert level. This program's neural network was trained using Temporal Difference learning applied to data generated from self-play. "This line of research has resulted in two modern commercial programs, Jellyfish and Snowie, the shareware BGBlitz, and the free software GNU Backgammon, that play on a par with the best human backgammon players in the world. It is worth noting that without their associated 'weights' tables, which represent hours or even months of tedious neural net training, these programs play no better than a human child would."

I can't let you do that, really: It would be tough to find a more infamous computer than the HAL 9000 of "2001: A Space Odyssey." The soft-spoken, ill-willed computer was in fact named the 13th greatest film villain by the American Film Institute, beating out another more in-your-face computer villain, the T-800 in the "Terminator" film. From the Carnegie Mellon Robot Hall of Fame entry: "HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) is capable of speech recognition, natural language understanding, lip reading, and thinking well enough to beat humans at chess. Along with all these capabilities comes the capacity for malevolence. HAL kills its astronaut crew. The audience is left wondering whether HAL is right, wrong, evil, or mad. An astronaut decides to shut down HAL 9000's higher cognitive functions, an experience equivalent to death for HAL. HAL's central core is depicted as a room full of brightly lit computer modules mounted in arrays from which they can be inserted or removed. As the astronaut removes the modules, HAL's intelligence degrades. HAL has had a lasting effect not only on fiction, but also on the real world. It has inspired astronauts, scientists and philosophers. Scientists ask how its capabilities can be duplicated and philosophers have asked whether HAL was responsible for the murders of the astronauts. All of us ask whether we want to create intelligent machines that may someday endanger us."

I'll be bach, again and again: Now that his human side has been released from the California governorship, it is possible we may see Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the almighty T-800 Terminator. From the IMDB Web site: "The Terminator, specifically the T-800 Series Model 101, is a cybernetic organism sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future in an effort to carry out its mission of either protection or assassination. It is living tissue such as skin, hair, eyes, and fingernails growing over a seemingly indestructible metal that acts as a skeleton and CPU. In times of extreme combat the metal skeleton can be seen where patches of skin have been destroyed. The T-800 has been sent back from a future where machines became artificially intelligent. A program of A.I .was developed by Cyberdine systems, and was incorporated into a United States military program known as Skynet."

Do you want to play a game? The War Operation Plan Response (WOPR) computer from the film "Wargames" was really the opposite of HAL. Really all WOPR wanted was to saddle up next to you and play games. It was the humans who misinterpreted his intentions to start a war (or was it?). According to its Wikipedia entry: "The WOPR computer as seen in the film was a prop created in Culver City, Calif., by members of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 44. It was designed by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland based on some pictures he had of early tabulating machines, and metal furniture, consoles, and cabinets used particularly in the U.S. military in the 1940s and 50s." Interesting list of fictional computers here.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8

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