1002: Game AIs
Title text: The top computer champion at Seven Minutes in Heaven is a Honda-built Realdoll, but to date it has been unable to outperform the human Seven Minutes in Heaven champion, Ken Jennings.
To understand the comic, you have to understand what the games are, so let's go (but first, the years in parenthesis in the comic are the year that the game was mastered by a computer):
- These games are considered "solved", meaning the ideal maneuver for each game state (Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect Four) or each of the limited starting positions (Checkers) has already been calculated. Computers aren't so much playing as they are recalculating the list of ideal maneuvers. The same could be said for the computer's human opponent, just at a slower pace.
- Tic-tac-toe or Noughts and Crosses in most of the rest of the British Commonwealth countries is a pencil-and-paper game for two players, X and O, who take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid. This game nearly always ends in a tie, regardless of whether humans or computers play it, because the amount of positions is minimal.
- Nim is a mathematical game of strategy in which two players take turns removing objects from distinct heaps. On each turn, a player must remove at least one object, and may remove any number of objects provided they all come from the same heap.
- Ghost is a spoken word game in which players take turns adding letters to a growing word fragment. The loser is the first person who completes a valid word or who creates a fragment that cannot be the start of a word.
- Connect Four (or Captain's Mistress, Four Up, Plot Four, Find Four, Fourplay, Four in a Row, Four in a Line) is a two-player game in which the players first choose a color and then take turns dropping their colored discs from the top into a seven-column, six-row vertically-suspended grid.
- Gomoku (or Gobang, Five in a Row) is an abstract strategy board game. It is traditionally played with go pieces (black and white stones) on a go board (19x19 intersections); however, because once placed, pieces are not moved or removed from the board, gomoku may also be played as a paper and pencil game. This game is known in several countries under different names.
- Black plays first, and players alternate in placing a stone of their color on an empty intersection. The winner is the first player to get an unbroken row of five stones horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.
- Checkers (in the United States, or draughts in the United Kingdom) is a group of strategy board games for two players which involve diagonal moves of uniform game pieces and mandatory captures by jumping over opponent pieces.
 Computers Beat Humans
- The below games cannot be "solved" due to the factors of random numbers, a near-infinite number of starting positions, or the existence of multiple "ideal" maneuvers for each position. That said, a computer's faster reaction time, higher degree of consistency in making the right decision, and reduced risk of user error make the computer objectively better than the human opponent in nearly all situations.
- Scrabble is a word game in which two to four players score points by forming words from individual lettered tiles on a gameboard marked with a 15-by-15 grid.
- CounterStrike most likely refers to the popular multiplayer shooter video game about terrorists and counter-terrorists. Counter-Strike is notorious for the large variety of cheating tools that have been made for it; a computer would have essentially perfect accuracy and reflexes, essentially making it the aimbot from hell. It is theoretically possible for a skilled player to beat an AI, but it would be extremely difficult to do so.
- Beer pong (or Beirut) is a drinking game in which players throw a ping pong ball across a table with the intent of landing the ball in a cup of beer on the other end.
- Here's the video of the University of Illinois robot mentioned in the comic.
- Reversi (marketed by Pressman under the trade name Othello) is a board game involving abstract strategy and played by two players on a board with 8 rows and 8 columns and a set of distinct pieces for each side. Pieces typically are disks with a light and a dark face, each face belonging to one player. The player's goal is to have a majority of their colored pieces showing at the end of the game, turning over as many of their opponent's pieces as possible.
- Chess is a two-player board game played on a chessboard, a square-checkered board with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. Each player begins the game with sixteen pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns, each of these types of pieces moving differently.
- The note mentions "the first game to be won by a chess-playing computer against a reigning world champion under normal chess tournament conditions", in the Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov match on February 10, 1996, and the Ponomariov vs Fritz game in the Man vs Machine World Team Championship on November 21, 2005, considered the "last win by a human against top computer".
- Jeopardy! is an American quiz show featuring trivia in history, literature, the arts, pop culture, science, sports, geography, wordplay, and more. The show has a unique answer-and-question format in which contestants are presented with clues in the form of answers, and must phrase their responses in question form.
- Ken Jennings, mentioned in the title text, is a famous Jeopardy champion who was beaten by Watson, an IBM computer.
 Humans Beat Computers
- The below games are incredibly difficult to "solve" due to the near-infinite number of possible positions. Computers built in the early 21st century would take years to calculate a single "ideal" move. Worse, the human opponent has the ability to "bluff"; that is, to make a bad move, thus baiting the computer into a trap. Complex algorithms have been devised to make moves in a reasonable timeframe, but so far they are all highly vulnerable to bluffing. As mentioned in the comic, focused research and development is working on refining these algorithms to play the games better.
- StarCraft is a military science fiction real-time strategy video game. The game revolves around three species fighting for dominance in a distant part of the Milky Way galaxy known as the Koprulu Sector: the Terrans, humans exiled from Earth skilled at adapting to any situation; the Zerg, a race of insectoid aliens in pursuit of genetic perfection, obsessed with assimilating other races; and the Protoss, a humanoid species with advanced technology and psionic abilities, attempting to preserve their civilization and strict philosophical way of living from the Zerg. While even average Starcraft players can defeat the AIs that originally shipped with the games, Starcraft has since been adopted as a standard benchmark for AI research, largely because of its excellent balance. Thanks to that attention, computers can now challenge some expert players, and the trend does not look promising for human players.
- Poker is a family of card games involving betting and individualistic play whereby the winner is determined by the ranks and combinations of their cards, some of which remain hidden until the end of the game. It is also, however, a game of deception and intimidation, the ubiquitous "poker face" being considered the most important part of the game.
- Arimaa is a two-player abstract strategy board game that can be played using the same equipment as chess. Arimaa was designed to be more difficult for artificial intelligences to play than chess. Arimaa was invented by Omar Syed, an Indian American computer engineer trained in artificial intelligence. Syed was inspired by Garry Kasparov's defeat at the hands of the chess computer Deep Blue to design a new game which could be played with a standard chess set, would be difficult for computers to play well, but would have rules simple enough for his then four-year-old son Aamir to understand. On April 18, 2015, a computer won the "Arimaa Challenge", so this comic is now out of date with respect to Arimaa; it should move above Starcraft or Jeopardy!.
- Go is an ancient board game for two players that originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. The game is noted for being rich in strategy despite its relatively simple rules. The game is played by two players who alternately place black and white stones on the vacant intersections (called "points") of a grid of 19×19 lines (beginners often play on smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards). The object of the game is to use one's stones to control a larger amount of territory of the board than the opponent.
Update: on March 15, 2016, Google's AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, who was often seen as the dominant human player over the last decade, 4 games to 1 in a widely viewed match, and Computer Go was expected to become more dominant over time.
- Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders) is an ancient Indian race game, where the moves are decided entirely by die rolls. A number of tiles are connected by pictures of ladders and snakes (or chutes) which makes the game piece jump forward or backward, respectively. Since the game is decided by pure chance, it occupies the limbo where a computer will always be exactly as likely to win as a human (which might mean it should be located right between 'humans beat computers' and 'computers beat humans').
 Computers cannot compete
- Mao (or Mau) is a card game of the Shedding family, in which the aim is to get rid of all of the cards in hand without breaking certain unspoken rules. The game is from a subset of the Stops family, and is similar in structure to the card game Uno.
- The game forbids its players from explaining the rules, and new players are often told only "the only rule you may be told is this one." The ultimate goal of the game is to be the first player to get rid of all the cards in their hand. Computers would have a difficult time integrating into Mao either because they would know all the rules -- and thus be disqualified or simply ignored by the players -- or would need a complicated learning engine that quite simply doesn't exist.
- Seven Minutes in Heaven is a teenagers' party game first recorded as being played in Cincinnati in the early 1950s. Two people are selected to go into a closet or other dark enclosed space and do whatever they like for seven minutes. Sexual activities are allowed; however kissing and making out are more common.
- As the game is focused on human interaction, there's not a whole lot a modern computer can do in the closet. It would need some kind of robotic body in order to interact with its human partner, and emotion engines that could feel pleasure and displeasure in order to make decisions. The title text claims that Honda Motor Company has invented a "RealDoll" (sex toy shaped like a mannequin) with rudimentary Seven Minutes in Heaven capabilities, but they pale in comparison to a human's.
- Calvinball is a game played by Calvin and Hobbes as a rebellion against organized team sports; according to Hobbes, "No sport is less organized than Calvinball!" Calvinball was first introduced to the readers at the end of a 1990 storyline involving Calvin reluctantly joining recess baseball. It quickly became a staple of the comic afterwards.
- The only hint at the true creation of the game ironically comes from the last Calvinball strip, in which a game of football quickly devolves into a game of Calvinball. Calvin remarks that "sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball," suggesting a similar scenario that directly led to the creation of the sport. Calvin and Hobbes usually play by themselves, although in one storyline Rosalyn (Calvin's baby-sitter) plays in return for Calvin doing his homework, and plays very well once she realizes that the rules are made up on the spot.
- The only consistent rule states that Calvinball may never be played with the same rules twice. Scoring is also arbitrary, with Hobbes at times reporting scores of "Q to 12" and "oogy to boogy." The only recognizable sports Calvinball resembles are the ones it emulates (i.e., a cross between croquet, polo, badminton, capture the flag, and volleyball.)
- Long story short, the game is a manifestation of pure chaos and the human imagination, far beyond the meager capabilities of silicon and circuitry.
- Difficulty of Various Games for Computers
- [A diagram. The left column describes various levels of skill for the most capable computers in decreasing performance against humans. The right side lists games in each particular section, in increasing game difficulty. There are labels denoting the hard and easy ends of the diagram.]
Tic-tac-toe Nim Ghost (1989) Connect Four (1995) Solved for
Gomoku Checkers (2007) Computers can
beat top humans
Scrabble CounterStrike Beer Pong (UIUC robot) Reversi Chess
- February 10, 1996:
First win by computer
against top human
- November 21, 2005:
Last win by human
against top computer
Jeopardy Computers still
lose to top humans
(but focused R&D
could change this)
StarCraft Poker Arimaa Go Snakes and Ladders Computers
Mao Seven Minutes in Heaven Calvinball
- February 10, 1996:
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