The turing test of chess

The turing test of chess

Feb 2, 2012, 10:02 PM |

Chess is commonly known as a  game with "complete information". This particular nature of the game along with other spatiotemporal characteristics and use of logic have attracted since early days  great attention from computer programmers.



Alan Turing himself one of the fathers of modern computers devised one of the first chess programs in history. The program, however, was so complex and for the cumbersome computer era so slow that could not be run on a machine, data processing would take too long for the computing capacity of even the most powerful computers in the Second World War . 


Turing then created a smaller version of the chess board and pieces and played against his wife (a mediocre chess player) responding through the calculations as would the computer, so Turing became the first "live computer man" and won. Today more than 60 years later we know that the best chess programs that can run on any device made available by modern technology are virtually unbeatable by humans.


The story that brought us all till today is a long history (and also a very interesting one for those who want to know) made up of men, masters of chess, computers, increased computing power and increasingly sophisticated software.


Turing was a mathematician and computer English genius, he  is probably best known for having helped to decipher the codes of the powerful German decrypting machine "Enigma", which greatly helped the Allies win the war, as well as being universally regarded as the inventor of the modern computer.


One of the laws that Turing developed is called the "Turing test" that determines how a computing machine can become indistinguishable from a human being".

In the case of chess works like this: Two players play in front of a screen into two separate rooms, one is a player the second is a machine, if the human player at the end of the game can not tell if the one on the other side is a machine or a man, then we say the machine has passed the Turing test.


The American writer Philip Dick has often used the kind of metaphor of the simulacrum in his novels as an unknowable reality where facts and dreams intertwine to become indistinguishable as in Blade Runner.

The Glass Bead Game from German writer Herman Hesse uses from chess to the music and colors (and more) to build a sort of universal library of knowledge a kind of forerunner to Internet infinite references , even in the Italian Italo Calvino "Invisible Cities"novel we see references with Marco Polo in the presence of the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo describes the city that the Emperor wants to know, from  his vast empire, but eventually they stop talking and the emperor start only uses chess as a powerful symbol and a metaphor for knowing all that is really needed.



Kasparov in a famous match against the Deep Blue accused IBM of fraud. There is a careful analysis of the game and the controversy that followed which was never made clear unfortunately, because Deep Blue was dismantled shortly thereafter.

The interesting thing though, is the fact that Kasparov declared that on "the other side" there was not a machine…. but a man  instead.


Today in 2012 for most fans would be virtually impossible to make such a statement. We can therefore say that the Turing test is solved? For example, most of the fans and chess lovers plays online matches today  for time and convenience reasons, but who really play? Who are we playing? Perhaps it may seem like a silly question, but  maybe in some cases it is not.


At the beginning I said that chess is a game with complete information, I will continue with this metaphor by saying that human beings instead "do not have a game with complete information" and any psychologist or criminologist, we'll be able to confirm that very easily. So paradoxically chess can end up revealing much more about human beings and their behavior, through the symbolism of the game and the way we play, but also  through the more or less ferocious battle that this mind game involves, and it's physical effects (but only on condition that all this occurs on the same chess table with a human in front of you)


It cannot reveal a lot about a machine really if not the accuracy of their programmers and softwares, but it can reveal a lot about human beings and how they work, and this is what makes the chess game truly immortal. In the Internet  and virtual reality era, maybe chess can still teach us a lot about men and humanity, reality, symbols, the simulacrum, and ultimately…… ourselves.


Sometimes I do think at chess as the "2001 space odyssey monolith of a kind"  and Stanley Kubrick (which was in fact quite a good chess player) probably had this idea in mind I guess. We as humanity played chess through history and for ages and we are still learning from this silent monolith exactly as it is in the movie.