Chess Variants

Chess has always been variant. Today there are thousands of mutations, transformations, and reorganizations of the classic game. I’m partial to those chess programs by Torus Games which allow you to play on boards stretched over imaginary topologies like Möbius strips and Klein bottles:

Alongside these programs you can find thousands of custom chess boards featuring strange situations and perplexing puzzles:


A History of Computer Chess

Understanding the history of computer chess as a field for measuring the intelligence of machines (and humans) is crucial to developing Neosentient Games. At first, citing the Mechanical Turk as a starting point for this history seems like a misnomer. The Mechanical Turk exhibits no autonomy and, in fact, isn’t strictly a computer. However, since the Neosentient will be invented through anthromorphic introspection, perhaps the idea of an augmented human (or augmented computer) is a good place to start developing Neosentient Games. After loosing to Big Blue in 1997, Gary Kasparov invented a chess variant for augmented play. Many chess masters create variants based on their intimate knowledge of the sport, adding or omitting pieces and extending the board, but Kasparov’s version of chess incorporated focused on augmenting the original game of chess by giving each human player a mechanical team mate. In Kasparov’s Augmented Chess, each human player could query their computer assistant for information. Is this the beginning of Neosentient Games? How can we develop this field towards the notion of the Neosentient?

End Game and Game Over

Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

On February 10, 1996, Deep Blue became the first machine to win a chess game against a reigning world champion (Garry Kasparov) under regular time controls. After the loss, Kasparov said that he sometimes saw deep intelligence and creativity in the machine’s moves, suggesting that during the second game, human chess players had intervened on behalf of the machine, which would be a violation of the rules. Though Kasparov felt “deep intelligence and creativity,” this aesthetic of sentience was merely a bi-product of Deep Blue ability to evaluate over 200 million positions per second. Can we design a playful machine?

Artificial Artificial Intellegence

Amazon has recently launched a new service called the Amazon Mechanical Turk. They propose a casual labor system in which humans get payed to do simple tasks that are particularly difficult for computers to perform. You can view these “Human Intelligence Tasks” or HITs, and see how much money one might earn, here.

Some of the tasks include transcribing audio clips to text, finding urls containing specified information, labeling images with the appropriate tags, and even signing up for accounts on different websites. Amazon’s mechanical Turk is fascinating in the way it blends human and computer labor. The various logics required to complete each task are notable for being particularly human and requiring sentience. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk could function as a guide to certain pragmatic qualities of sentience.

On top of this, Amazon’s clear reference to the original Mechanical Turk is interesting and problematic. More soon on this…I’m thinking of both selling and buying some human labor as research for my project.

Benjamin’s Turk

In the opening paragraph of On the Concept of History (1939), Benjamin recounts the story of the Mechanical Turk:

It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.

Neosentient Play 1.1

What is the aesthetic of sentience? How does it feel? If a machine feels sentient do we treat it differently? Is there benevolence in the neosentient embrace?

It seems possible, as a step towards neosentience, to model not sentience, but its aesthetic. Can we build a scenario in which we feel benevolence or must we first build the neosentient machine? In 1947, Alan Turing wrote “Intelligent Machinery,” where he first devised a test to verify intelligence. Turing writes:

It is not difficult to devise a paper machine which will play a not very bad game of chess. Now get three men as subjects for the experiment. A, B and C. A and C are to be rather poor chess players, B is the operator who works the paper machine. … Two rooms are used with some arrangement for communicating moves, and a game is played between C and either A or the paper machine. C may find it quite difficult to tell which he is playing. (Turing)

It is no coincidence that chess is an important medium in the history of mechanic intelligence. Whether Teletype or a game of chess, communication between two entities occurs through some medium. The more articulate the medium, the more intelligent the machine must be. Because chess is based on a finite set of rules that, when combined, produce emergent forms of play, it seems like a ripe form for simulating an aesthetic of sentience. If the first computer was a person, then the first computer game might be the Mechanical Turk. But what is play to a machine?

Applying a game studies approach to the rich history of artificial intelligence, I hope to begin the development of an experiment game engine for facilitating neosentient play. I want to develop plans for a playful computer. My project begins with a study of the history of computer games, starting with chess games, and moves toward developing a new game based on this research.