Following in the path of their chess playing, Kasparov-beating "Deep Blue", computer giants IBM have gone out again and astounded the game world. In creating a "super-computer" devised to win every time at Noughts and Crosses (that's Tic-Tac-Toe for any confused Americans reading), IBM hope we may once again reconsider the nature of artificial technology and its capacity to ultimately overtake and eventually replace the need of the human intellect.
The programme, tentatively titled, "CENTER-SQUARE", can process up to 12 billion thoughts per second. This essentially means that it can, if awarded the first go, place its nought or cross in the centre square of the nine-square grid at a success rate of 12,000,000,000,000,000:1. Ask any Noughts and Crosses player of repute and they will tell you that placing your nought or cross in the centre-square is often, if not always, the key to victory.
A team of 12 IBM programmers along with two Noughts and Crosses grandmasters have worked laboriously over the past two years in their endeavour to create a programme that can not only think like a human but also play nought and crosses like one. It has been in chief programming designer, Bill Matthews's words, "a seismic challenge". He now feels though that they have "reached their holy grail".
"your concentration needs to be in optimum condition at all times. It's like chess only much much harder. That's what makes it the great game it is though".
World champion and world number one, Henry Fiorenapoli from Naples, Italy has, as expected, been chosen as CENTER-SQUARE'S first human opponent. Widely regarded as the greatest noughts and crosser of all time, Fioranapoli seemed excited if a little wary, maybe a bit tired, yesterday when faced with an inquisitive world press.
He confessed, "I would worry that it (CENTER- SQUARE) might eventually grind me down, perhaps causing me to once forget to put my nought or cross in the centre-square of the grid. You know it only takes one mistake in noughts and crosses, your concentration needs to be in optimum condition at all times. It's like chess only much much harder. That's what makes it the great game it is though".
A child prodigy (at aged 6, he was famous for challenging and beating up to 15 players simultaneously in the leafy, littered parks of Naples)
Fioranapoli is also the only player in the history of the game to score what is known as a "Roxbury-Double-Duplo-Triumph" in a professional, competitive fixture.
This is a move named in honour of former 18th century great, Scot, Harvey Roxbury who famously won an exhibition match against the Emperor Joseph II of Austria by joining two rows of three crosses simulataneously (effectively winning the game twice). It's a match the great Mozart was said to have attended (Roxbury was himself a huge music fan to the extent that Mozart even dedicated a piano concerto to him- the Piano Conceto No. 15 "Noughts and Crosses", K 345. On the original score Mozart marked an X instead of a ♪ to signify a quaver.
Despite such awe-inspiring credentials, Fioranapoli has appealed to IBM for the right to use nought, his preferred symbol for the match. "I would feel far more comfortable using nought", he pointed out.
Ominously for Fioranapoli, to this request, "CENTER-SQUARE" programme affiliator, Tom Potty with bullish confidence responded, "It does not matter. We are confident our machine can win using either a nought or a cross".
Normally the designation of symbol is decided by a coin toss (using a special coin marked X on one side and 0 on the other - indeed Fioranapoli once disgraced himself in a youth tournament many years back when he smuggled in a double-sided coin to ensure he got to play as nought. "That was a real low point" he admitted).
In this case however, IBM appear unperturbed and are more than willing to let Fioranapoli choose the symbol he prefers.
Much as they did with the Kasparov, Deep Blue encounter, the media, including, by default, this report, are billing this match-up as an intriguing battle of man vs machine, nature vs technology, computer vs human brain and so forth. However one wishes to interpret the match's wider cultural connotations though, there is little doubt it has captured the public's imagination to an extent even greater perhaps than that of the Kasparov match, perhaps even greater than the famous early nineties confrontation between man and computer on the IBM edition of Guess Who. (Relatively primitive technology meant that computer could only process 100,000 thoughts a minute meaning in effect that it would always get Bill and Max mixed up).
"He can do it. I am convinced of that. But he's got to maintain his usual swashbuckling, high intensity style and not alter it according to how the computer plays".
World Number 4 golfer and huge noughts and crosses fan, Phil Mickelson spoke excitedly of the match. "I can't wait. The front of my house is decked out in Italian flags. Jesus Christ I can't wait. It's going to be so fucking great. Excuse my French but fuck sake, what a match, what a fuckin' occasion. When it gets to the clutch of the match it'll be fucking incredible, I can picture the beads of sweat rolling down Fioranapoli's face as he stares down his faceless foe. I'd swap my green jacket for a chance to play that man at tic-tac-toe. Sure I'd have no chance but by fuck is he a legend".
Former World and African champion, Zambian, Gregory "the Big Big Giraffe" Umbutu, said it's imperative Fioranapoli accrues an early advantage. "If he can get his nought in the centre square for the first few games it might help to settle him down. He can do it. I am convinced of that. But he's got to maintain his usual swashbuckling, high intensity style and not alter it according to how the computer plays. If the computer places his cross in the centre, then Henry must try put his nought in one of the corner squares to at least score a draw. That is crucial - he can't afford to lose ground and play catch up. It won't be easy though. There will be unprecedented pressure on him. It's deeply important not just for Henry but for the whole of humanity that he wins this game".
Former noughts and crosses world champion turned eminent psychologist, Canadian Billy Wagner said, "We hope to gain some insight into the workings of not only the human brain but also the burgeoning capacity of machines to replicate the brain. I myself gravely doubt that a machine, however powerful, could manage to put its nought or cross in the centre square every single time over a full match. Maybe for 50 or so games but not over a full match. I just can't see it. It's like asking a computer to paraphrase the plays of Shakepeare without allowing the plays to lose any artistic merit. Humans, regardless of technological advances, will always do certain things better. I wait to be proved wrong however".
He added, "A computer may be able to calculate a billion thoughts a second but it lacks that devilish knack of lateral thought that gifted humans like Henry can readily call upon. I can't imagine a computer ever pulling off a Roxbury Double Duplo Triumph".
The match will be televised live on NBC on 14th January (22:00 local time) and broadcast to over 361 countries across the globe including Botswana. Organisers have chosen the National Games and Recreation Centre, 7th Avenue, Manhattan as the venue, where the players will be sequestered in a small, specially constructed studio on the 31st floor. Up to 500 lucky noughts and crosses enthusiasts from around the globe are expected to gather on the ground floor auditorium where they will watch the game on giant video screens complete with running commentary from Wagner and fellow grandmaster, Russian, Alexie Saylekov. Journalists and a variety of other noughts and crosses grandmasters will be crowded in a room on the 48th floor.
3.6 billion people worldwide are expected to tune in to the live television coverage with a further 1.2 billion who for some reason can't catch the live showing expected to watch it on video later on.
Should Fioranapoli win, he will receive a cheque for $700,000. IBM, who put up the prize purse say, should they themselves triumph, the winning stake will be put towards continued research. Should IBM lose, it is safe to say the publicity they are reaping from the match should comfortably cover the debt owed to Fioranapoli.