In 1950, Alan Turing created a computer chess program that foreshadowed AI


Chess is one of the oldest and most revered strategy and analysis games in the world. It’s such a complex game that some people spend their entire lives trying to master it. Almost 60 years ago, a new player entered the game, fueled not by human intelligence and dedication, but by lines of code on paper, written by computer scientist Alan Turing.

The best-known chess computer is IBM’s Deep Blue, who faced Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a series of high-profile matches in February 1996. Deep Blue was not the first, however. computer programmed for chess. This distinct honor goes to an algorithm named “Turbochamp”, which was written by the famous computer scientist, mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing in the late 1940s.

Known to many historians as the “Father of Computing,” Turing first rose to prominence when he perfected the Bomb, a mechanical device used by the British Secret Service to decipher encrypted messages sent to the aid of the German machine Enigma during World War II. Turing’s achievements are seen as a turning point in the war.

Turing continued his work in the field of computer science, even working with primitive forms of artificial intelligence. His work with AI quickly led him to tackle chess, which he saw as a way to test the true courage of an artificial brain. (The term “IA” was not coined until 1956, two years after Turing’s untimely death).

An Enigma cipher machine that belonged to decryptor Alan Turing at Bonham’s Auction House, New York. (Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Turing started working on his algorithm in 1948, even before computers were able to perform complex calculations. Still, Turing went on and finished his code in 1950. The algorithm was crude. His logic was based on some of the most basic rules of chess, and he was only able to “think” two moves ahead. To put this in context, Garry Kasparov, who is considered one of the best players in the world, said he usually calculates three to five moves in advance, but can anticipate as many as 12 or 14. shots, depending on the situation.

With the code written, Turing set out to test it on a working computer. After unsuccessful attempts to implement the algorithm using the Ferranti Mark I, the world’s first general-purpose computer, in 1951, Turing decided to demonstrate the capabilities of the algorithm without using d computer at all.

He challenged his friend and colleague Alick Glennie, with the caveat that Turing would play the game using a paper version of his code. When it was Turing’s turn to make a move, he would consult the algorithm and use his “logic” to decide which pieces to move and where. Because he had to analyze each move as his program would, Turing took over 30 minutes to work on the strategy each time his turn came. “Turbochamp” showed he was quite capable of playing against a human in chess, but not winning. Glennie beat Turing in just 29 strokes.

Turing was never able to see his program executed by a real computer. He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, two weeks before what would have been his 42nd birthday. Turing had been prosecuted and chemically castrated because of his relationship with another man in 1952. Turing’s wartime triumphs and the early achievements of artificial intelligence have been forgotten. The British government did not declassify the work of Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park until the 1970s, and Turing’s own dossier on the Enigma code hack was not published until the 1990s.

VIDEO: Garry Kasparov plays “Turbochamp” by Turing

In June 2012, as part of the Alan Turing Centenary Lecture at the University of Manchester, “Turbochamp” finally had the chance to prove his keen sense to the world. The opponent of the algorithm that day? Garry Kasparov, of course.

The 1950’s little program was no match for the Russian grandmaster, who won against IBM’s “Deep Blue” in 1966, but later lost to an IBM supercomputer in 1997. The man many believe to be the greatest chess player of all time was mopped the floor with Turbochamp in just 16 moves. Afterwards, the victorious Kasparov paid homage to the legendary programmer, declaring: “I guess you could call it primitive, but I would compare it to an old car, you could laugh at them, but it’s still a incredible feat.

“[Turing] wrote algorithms without having a computer – many young scientists would never believe it was possible. It was an exceptional achievement. “


Gordon K. Morehouse