Revenge of “The Turk”

Computers can easily beat any human at chess, but only now can they actually move the pieces

1 min read

Artificial intelligence mavens have often pointed out that it’s easier for a computer to play master-level chess than to pick up the pieces and put them on their intended squares.

Moral: to survive the next wave of automation, learn a manual trade like cabinetmaking rather than an intellectual profession like medicinelaw or editing.

But now even this final redoubt of human exceptionalism is falling to the machine. Yesterday in Toronto, at the AAAI Robotics Fair, Kenneth Regan, a computer scientist and a noted chess master, lost two games to a robot that moved the pieces all by itself

Regan, a professor at the University of Buffalo, writes in an email that an optical system “identified my move and fed it to the Houdini chess engine, and then the Lego-build arm executed the engine's reply. Apparently as close to ‘The Turk’ as anyone has come.”

“The Turk” was a mechanical contraption topped by a turbaned and mustachioed wooden head that physically moved pieces on top of its base, a cabinet that opened to show that nobody was inside. Of course, someone was inside—a chess-playing dwarf, of master-level strength it appears, given that The Turk defeated Benjamin Franklin (a very good player) as well as Napoleon Bonaparte (a very bad one).

No less than Edgar Allen Poe observed the contraption in the 1830s and called it out as a fraud. He was right, but for the wrong reason: He thought that any machine able to play chess at all would necessarily play it perfectly.

Not so. The hard part is to put the pieces where you want them to go.

According to Regan, his robot overlord did have a bit of trouble holding onto the knights, the only truly asymmetrical piece. At least the machine didn't call it a horse.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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