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The birth of modern computing

Deep Blue was the first computer to win at a world chess championship level, as Herbert Simon predicted long ago. (Photo: Jim Gardner)

If you conducted a Google search on June 23rd, chances are you saw a graphic honoring Alan Turing (1912 — 1954), a British mathematician, on what would have been his 100th birthday. Turing created a binary system which paved the way for modern computing. In 1936 he wrote a paper describing what would later be called the Turing Machine: an extremely long piece of tape on which symbols were printed which could be deciphered by a machine. Today, computers still operate on binary logic using 1's and 0's, but obviously sans tape.

Two years after Turing's death, Allen Newell (1927 — 1992), a researcher and psychologist, and Herbert Simon (1916 — 2001), a sociologist, began their work with the first computer at what was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University). While Turing's work set the stage for basic computing, Newell and Simon pioneered the effort to make machines intelligent. Together they researched the behavioral and cognitive processes that go into decision making—both from a human point of view and from a machine's point of view as they ventured into the realm of artificial intelligence.

Simon and Newell carried out experiments with computer programs using high level symbol processing as well as psychological experiments to determine the process people used to solve logic problems. The premise was that anything can be digitized, including the behavior of intelligent life, and simulated by a computer.

One of their early programs, called Logic Theorist, was successful in proving statements using accepted rules of logic. As a harbinger of things to come, in the case of one theorem, the problem-solving program actually created a better solution than had been recognized by logicians at the time.

In 1959, Simon and Newell teamed up with J. C. (Cliff) Shaw (1922 — 1991), a systems programmer and computer scientist at the Rand Corporation, to create the first GPS—General Problem Solver, which used abstract rules (heuristics) to solve problems rather than using algorithms. This was meant to more closely mimic human problem-solving patterns. Unfortunately, the GPS seemed capable of only solving simple problems and was later abandoned. The problem was that humans use specialized knowledge to solve problems, and it was impossible to input specialized knowledge from a wide range of areas into the GPS; its programming was too general.  

Newell, Simon and Shaw created the Information Processing Language (IPL), an assembly language program made to conduct general problem-solving, and which pioneered the concept of list processing. Its functions included testing symbols for equality; finding or erasing an attribute from a list; locating the next symbol in a list; erasing or copying an entire list; arithmetic operations; and input/output operations, among others. The linked list was originally called "NSS memory" in honor of its inventors.

The game of chess was a natural test for computer programming. In 1950, Alan Turing wrote the first computer chess program. In 1957, Herbert Simon predicted that in ten years, a computer would be the world chess champion rather than a human. In 1958, Simon, Newell and Shaw's NSS chess program beat a human (albeit a human who was taught chess one hour prior to the test).  

In 1967, the MacHACK VI became the first program to beat a human in a series of chess tournaments. After four tournaments, it won 3 games, lost 12, and drew 3.

It would take decades, however, before computers performed at world chess championship level. In 1989, reigning world champion Garry Kasparov defeated the computer Deep Thought. But in 1996, he lost his first game to IBM's Deep Blue, though he won the six-game match. The following year he lost the match to Deep Blue. Since then, computers have reigned in international chess matches; a feat which came much later than Simon's prediction; but which, as Simon knew, was inevitable.  

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Deep Blue was the first computer to win at a world chess championship level, as Herbert Simon predicted long ago. (Photo: Jim Gardner)
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