Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 plays chess with astronaut Frank Poole. Poole makes a move and HAL explains that in the next three moves he’ll have checkmate. Poole resigns, not surprised in the least that he’s lost, and HAL politely says, “Thank you for a very enjoyable game.” In the novel version of the story, it’s said that HAL is programmed to lose fifty-percent of the games he plays in order to not demoralize the astronauts. In 1968, at the time of the film and novel’s release, computers were able to play well in amateur tournaments, but none were close to competing at professional levels, and the idea of a computer playing so perfectly that it would have to be programmed to lose was a distant dream.
As long as humans have building machines to mimic our physical form, we’ve been trying to make them mimic our minds as well, and, in these early days of artificial intelligence, one of the best ways to measure how a machine parses information and makes decisions is by playing games. Even though games are sometimes characterized as superfluous, they exercise our brains in creative ways. They demonstrate the complexity, long-term planning, memory, adaptability and elasticity of the human brain, and coding all of that into the workings of a machine is a challenge that’s only been recently conquered.
Machines have long since passed humans in competitions of strength, speed and physical endurance, but up until the last few years, games felt like one of the last refuges where humanity hadn’t been surpassed by its own creations. But as this short history proves, computers are already superior at games, and soon they’ll be applying the lessons learned in checkers, chess and more to numerous other areas, including sales negotiations, recognizing faces and military strategy. Let’s just hope they remain as polite as HAL was during his chess match.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.