Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Processing Power

I was struck by this paralell between Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy playing computer, and on how IBM initially triumphed in chess. First on Watson’s architecture:

This deadline [build a viable Jeopardy-playing computer by 2009] compelled Ferrucci and his team [at IBM] to build their machine with existing technology–the familiar semiconductors etched in silicon, servers whirring through billions of calculations and following instructions from many software programs that already existed. In its guts, Blue J would not be so different from the battered ThinkPad Ferrucci lugged from one meeting to the next. No, if Blue J was going to compete with the speed and versatility of the human mind, the magic would have to come from its massive scale, inspired design, and carefully-tuned algorithms. In other words, if Blue J became a great Jeopardy! player, it would be less a triumph of science than of engineering.

And this from the New Yorker’s article on chess star Magnus Carlsen:

But how does a grandmaster play? The early computer programmers struggled to solve this puzzle. They took note of the chess adept’s highly developed memory, his understanding of the value of having pieces on certain squares on the board, and his ability to have his moves informed by previous games that he had played or read about. Replicating the thinking of a human chess player was extremely difficult, though. Well into the nineteen-nineties, top grandmasters were still beating computers. But computers eventually got so fast that they no longer needed to be particularly smart to beat humans at games — they could just play out every scenario for the subsequent ten to fifteen moves and choose the best one. Brute force replaced finesse as the favored approach in computer chess.

It’s funny because at first this seems like brute force, but really it’s just designing around the platform. One could argue our brains are actually the brute force, piling an absurd amount of processing power (far more than a computer) into a human head. We are able to solve these problems more elegantly because we don’t have to worry about the hardware limitations.

March 18, 2011