As the Christmas season is approaching, many people turn their attention to educational games, seen only as something to entertain children. But, together with puzzles, crosswords and other entertainment, they have always been important for very different reasons.
Let’s analyze the riddle of the Königsberg bridges.
Königsberg had seven bridges in the eighteenth century connecting the two banks of a river and two large islands. The riddle asked: is there a walking route through the city that crosses each bridge only once? When the great mathematician Leonhard Euler met the problem, he found it “irrelevant”, but was intrigued by the fact that, despite its apparent simplicity, “neither geometry, nor algebra, nor even the art of counting” could solve it. And so Euler invented a whole new branch of mathematics: graph theory.
“That was the beginning of all network analysis,” says Alex Bellos, author of Can You Solve My Problems?, a new book that celebrates the pleasure and history of puzzles. Euler’s graph theory has been enormously useful in chemistry, physics, sociology and, of course, computer science. The Internet is based on Euler’s analysis. And everything started with a test of mental acuity?
Perhaps it is no surprise that puzzles result in a mathematical breakthrough: after all, they are designed to be intellectual challenges, but other hobbies have also stimulated new ideas; for example, gambling.
Perhaps the first player to be inspired by this vice was the Renaissance mathematician Girolamo Cardano, who produced the fundamentals of the theory of probabilities.
The first crossword puzzle as we know it, was published in 1913, but square puzzles of words have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. In the 30s, crosswords inspired the creation of the Scrabble board game, and during World War II crossword quiz answers were used to pass coded messages to the enemy.
Three and a half centuries after the death of Cardano, the most intelligent man in the world decided to use mathematics to find out the best way to play poker. John von Neumann was one of the driving forces behind the development of the atomic bomb and the computer, and he wanted to apply mathematics to the social sciences, for example, to analyze the success or failure of negotiations, or the formation of alliances. His argument was that a mathematical theory that could explain life should begin by explaining poker: “Real life consists of bluffing, in small and clever tactics, in asking oneself what the other man thinks I am trying to do. ”
The result of Von Neumann’s reflections – first alone and then with the economist Oskar Morgenstern – was “game theory”, one of the pillars of modern economics and an important tool in evolutionary biology.
This is an impressive list of ways in which games have inspired us, and we have not even considered the way computer scientists have used chess as a testing ground for their machines.
That was not the last time simple fun changed the world of computers. The first interactive videogame, Spacewar!, was designed in the early 1960s by enthusiastic students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wanted to demonstrate what the latest computers could do. And what they could do was far beyond the technical scope: they could hijack our attention, trigger Pavlovian responses, even become addicted, giving us a convincing and attractive challenge.
Silicon Valley visionary Stewart Brand wrote about Spacewar! in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. He saw what the game represented: computers that ordinary people would love. “I saw they had a kind of out-of-body experience,” he said recently about the Spacewar players! “Their brains and fingers were fully dedicated to what they were doing.” That curious compulsion felt by every PlayStation fan or Instagram addict was first felt by the players of this old game.
Now, researchers at DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence group, are turning to video games to train artificial intelligence. The AI is shown the game screen, is given access to the scoreboard and a game controller, and then – without further information – find out how to master the game. Initially, DeepMind started with simple games like Atari’s Breakout, but recently it has been using Starcraft II, a game that requires tactics, military strategy, surprise and economic planning. Like Von Neumann poker, learning how to play Starcraft II is a good workout for the rigors of reality.
Can a computer program beat a human in solving crosswords? It seems that not yet, at least according to the results of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where computers can not fight against the capacity of their rival mortals.
At present, artificial intelligence has some important achievements, for example, it plays a level of chess worthy of a world champion but the machines still can not be so good searching crossword puzzle answers.