Oct 30

Reported by Rowan Hooper, news editor in NewScientist, 12 October 2010

A computer has beaten a human at shogi, otherwise known as Japanese chess, for the first time. No big deal, you might think. After all, computers have been beating humans at western chess for years, and when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in 1997, it was greeted in some quarters as if computers were about to overthrow humanity.

That hasn’t happened yet, but after all, western chess is a relatively simple game, with only about 10123 possible games existing that can be played out. Shogi is a bit more complex, though, offering about 10224 possible games.

The Mainichi Daily News reports that top women’s shogi player Ichiyo Shimizu took part in a match staged at the University of Tokyo, playing against a computer called Akara 2010. Akara is apparently a Buddhist term meaning 10224, the newspaper reports, and the system beat Shimizu in six hours, over the course of 86 moves.

Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, reported that Akara “aggressively pursued Shimizu from the beginning”. It’s the first time a computer has beaten a professional human player.

The Japan Shogi Association, incidentally, seems to have a deep fear of computers beating humans. In 2005, it introduced a ban on professional members playing computers without permission, and Shimizu’s defeat was the first since a simpler computer system was beaten by a (male) champion, Akira Watanabe, in 2007.

Perhaps the association doesn’t mind so much if a woman is beaten: NHK reports that the JSA will conduct an in-depth analysis of the match before it decides whether to allow the software to challenge a higher-ranking male professional player. Meanwhile, humans will have to face up to more flexible computers, capable of playing more than just one kind of game.

And IBM has now developed Watson, a computer designed to beat humans at the game show Jeopardy. Watson, says IBM, is “designed to rival the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers”. IBM say they have improved artificial intelligence enough that Watson will be able to challenge Jeopardy champions, and they’ll put their boast to the test soon, says The New York Times.

I’ll leave you with these wise and telling words from the defeated Shimizu: “It made no eccentric moves, and from partway through it felt like I was playing against a human,” Shimizu told the Mainichi Daily News. “I hope humans and computers will become stronger in the future through friendly competition.”

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