A Brief History of Chess Playing Machines

The Mechanical Turk, or Automaton Chess Player, was a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854 it was exhibited by various owners as an automaton, though it was eventually revealed to be an elaborate hoax. It was constructed and unveiled in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804) to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria [1].

 The Turk was a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years, playing and defeating many challengers including statesmen such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

The device was later purchased in 1804 and exhibited. The chess masters who secretly operated it are known but for many years but the system of real and fake mechanisms, see-through panels and even an elaborate air ventilation system were not known about until revealed in the 19th century.

Interest in chess playing machines was re-ignited in the latter part of the 20th century with the rise of powerful chess software and the expansion of parallel computing technologies. This Human vs Machine competition culminated in a series of matches between the reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer developed by IBM. It is known for being the first computer chess-playing system to win both a chess game and a chess match against a reigning world champion under regular time controls [1].

Deep Blue won its first game against a world champion on 10 February 1996, when it defeated Garry Kasparov in game one of a six-game match. However, Kasparov won three and drew two of the following five games, defeating Deep Blue by a score of 4–2. Deep Blue was then heavily upgraded, and played Kasparov again in May 1997. In a tense match for the participants, Deep Blue won game six, thereby winning the six-game rematch 3½–2½ and becoming the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls. Kasparov accused IBM of cheating and demanded a rematch. IBM refused and dismantled Deep Blue.

In 2005, Amazon.com launched the Amazon Mechanical Turk. This software application co-ordinates programming tasks with human intelligence, inspired in part by the way Kempelen’s Turk operated. The program is designed to have humans perform tasks with which computers struggle, such as colour comparisons.

In an ironic reversal of fortune the Mechanical Turk machines, once guided by humans, now delegate menial but distinctly human tasks to people to perform.

The Impact of Machines

According to accounts from IBM [2, 3] Deep Blue had an impact on computing in many different industries. It was programmed to solve the complex, strategic game of chess, so it enabled researchers to explore and understand the limits of massively parallel processing.  The algorithms it employed to do so included ‘Brute Force’ computing solutions to handle the complexity of the game and calculate more moves ahead than the opponent. However, real improvement in chess playing machines came only when they started to include strategy heuristics developed by chess masters, such as sacrificing a queen to gain advantage, as “Learning the rules only by observation can lead to catastrophe” [4].

The rules of play in chess are mathematical in nature, but the sense of what is required to win in finely balanced competitive situations is still a human trait that needs to be programmed into a machine, as  “Computers don’t have common sense or any context that they aren’t told or cannot build” [4]. Only through direction of the Machine Learning was Deep Blue able to utilise the relentless logic of the machine combined with the efforts of programmers and chess experts to defeat the efforts of a single player.

Computer software is made in the image of its creators and uses the machines logical strengths over human logic. The way we refer to them as computers, processors or agents are revealed in the language we use. In bygone days, these terms were originally used to describe the functions of humans. Now, in the computer age, they describe the actions of machine automated systems where the moves of the player reflect the will of the owner of the system. Computer systems reflect the values of the developer, with ‘open source’ decentralisation patterns at odds with the ‘closed source’ centralisation patterns that reflect the authority preferences of Corporations and Government agencies.

The Need for Explainable Artificial Intelligence

Chess playing research gave developers insight into ways they could design a computer to tackle complex problems in other fields, using deep knowledge to analyze a higher number of possible solutions. The architecture used in Deep Blue was applied to financial modeling, marketplace trends and risk analysis; data mining—uncovering hidden relationships and patterns in large databases; and molecular dynamics, a valuable tool for helping to discover and develop new drugs.

These and countless other steps forward are a legacy of the chess playing automata, but we should not be blind to the fact that software is imbued with the values of the developers which is why centralised, decentralised and hybrid systems always reflect the ethics of the system creators and owners.

There are implications for Machine Learning (ML) whereby machines are trained to do what machines do best and Artificial Intelligence (AI) where they do something completely different based on the efforts and direction of the owners. ML may be relatively value-free, but true AI contains teaching from a master, one very good reason why Explainable AI (XAI) is an essential part of our journey towards transparency.


[1]: Wikipedia, The Mechanical Turk at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk

[2]: IBM, Deep Blue: https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/deepblue/

[3] IBM, Deep Blue Cultural Impacts: https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/deepblue/impacts/

[4] Kasparov, G., 2017. Deep thinking: where machine intelligence ends and human creativity begins. Hachette UK.

[Picture Credit]: Carafe at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)