The Incredible Chess Playing Automaton

Posted by in Technology

Turk-engraving5In 1997 a computer designed by IBM and nicknamed Deep Blue defeated reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game chess match. The loss was a milestone in the world of computer science. The number of legal positions in chess is estimated to be between 1043 and 1050, with a game-tree complexity of approximately 10123. Only since the advent of micro processing can machines approach the logic necessary to compete with world-class chess players.

Interestingly it was a machine constructed in the late 18th century that first deigned to pit man versus machine. Wolfgang Von Kempelen constructed the Turk in 1770 for Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. The amazing machine consisted of a life size human model dressed in the Turkish style of the day. The mechanical man sat at a large cabinet topped with a chessboard. The cabinet doors opened to expose a serious of gears and cogs very similar to that of a large clock.

Von Kempelen demonstrated the machine by challenging a member of the crowd of onlookers to play the machine at chess. The games rarely lasted very long with the hapless human usually losing in short order. Kempelen would also impress crowds by his machine?s ability to perform the Knight?s Tour, a chess puzzle in which a knight moves to occupy every square of the board only once. The chess-playing automaton toured Europe and America for over 70 years. During it?s lifetime some of the Turks more notable opponents/victims included Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1954 a fire destroyed the Turk and only then was it?s secret finally reveled.

The Turk was not a machine at all, but an eccentric hoax meant to fool any observer. A series of false walls and a sliding seat concealed a human player within the cabinet. The operator controlled the Turk using several levers. Each piece on the board contained a strong magnet, which moved a corresponding piece on the underneath of the board. Thus the operator was able to keep track of all the moves.

The Turk may not have been a genuine chess-playing machine, but its very existence and popularity are important. The Turk inspired us to keep finding ways to make our creations smarter. Today Deep Blue and its offspring command enough intelligence to rival the human brain. This kind of technology was imagined centuries before it became practical.? The incredible chess-playing automaton, just as visionaries such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, gave us a glimpse of what could be.