The Game That Learns

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MONTAGE SONG: “Synthetic Life” by Julian Emery, James Hockley & Adam Noble

By the 1950s, science fiction was beginning to become reality: machines didn’t just calculate; they began to learn. Machine calculating was out. Machine learning was in. But we had to start small.

Donald Michie’s “Machine Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine” — MENACE — was composed of 304 separate matchboxes that each depicted a possible state of a checker game. MENACE eventually learned to play perfectly, and we replicate and explain that process with Shreksapawn, our adaptation of Martin Gardner’s MENACE-inspired game of Hexapawn.

The goal of MENACE and Hexapawn was to determine how to get machines to learn, and eventually to get them to think. As we realized how the simplest computers could learn to play games perfectly, we may have stumbled on the secret to humans playing the game of life perfectly… or at least getting a tiny bit closer to perfection every day.

By harnessing math, the human intellect, and a bag full of crafting supplies, we can gain just a little glimpse into how intelligence actually works — whether it’s human or artificial.

*** SOURCES ***

“How to Build a Game-Learning Machine and Then Teach It to Play and Win,” Martin Gardner, Scientific American:

Matthew Scroggs’ MENACE Simulator:

MENACE: Machine Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine:

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Hosted, Produced, And Edited by Kevin Lieber
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Research And Writing by Matthew Tabor

VFX By Eric Langlay

Huge Thanks To Paula Lieber

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36 COMMENTS

  1. I wanted to respond to two types of comments that have appeared more than once. I read all the comments and really appreciate when you all dig deep into these topics.

    First, we're missing some matchboxes because we don't actually need them! Some matchboxes work for two scenarios — once for the board position they display, and also for the board position that is a mirror image of it. The computer learns both board positions at the same time, but yes, at first glance it appears as though I just left some out. Martin Gardner didn't think they were necessary, either.

    Second, Hexapawn is a much simpler version of chess, so terms like "checkmate" and "stalemate" aren't exactly the same. They're simpler, too. In chess, checkmate is achieved when there is no way for your opponent to move without the king being captured. A stalemate occurs when a player has no legal move. A stalemate results in a draw.

    So, when that occurs in Hexapawn, it has the trappings of a stalemate but has the result and the spirit of a checkmate — the win is awarded to the player who moves in a way that creates a stalemate for their opponent. Because the situation results in a win instead of a draw, I thought it was more appropriate to compare it to checkmate, though it may have been clearer to avoid the language of "checkmate" entirely.

  2. *reads the title
    me:i wont make sense right? like…its just random not learning

    me 8 mins later: ohh…

  3. What would happen if you put another computer to play, by making another box to choose the first move? Would it still work?

  4. I was wondering if it would be possible to create a (probably real computer controlled) algorithm witch works similarly but for different, more complicated games, for example, normal chess. Technicaly you can write a list of every possible chess move and a list of the moves of every possible chess game (however it would take a looong time) so…

  5. But fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HEREBut fir–

    Me: RAID SHADOW LEGENDS HERE

  6. Use Smarties, (or Reese's Pieces if you insist, but Smarties are bigger so win in my book) not beads.
    Much more fun "teaching" the computer its moves when you can eat its losing moves.

  7. Um. A checkmate is when the opponent's king cannot avoid being taken. When one player in chess doesn't have any legal moves it's a STALEmate.

  8. 5:10
    Kevin: “TEAM KEVIN WILL MOVE HOW I WANT TEAM KEVIN TO MOVE BECAUSE I’M KEVIN”
    Me: Ooh, deep, man
    Oh, who am I kidding?

  9. 2:46 Shrek would never lose a game even if he is teaching a tutorial. This part of the video is blasphemy

    Shrek is love, Shrek is life

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