Robot playing chess
Review

Book review: ‘Playing Smart: On Games, Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence’

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Whether they’re competing with each other or with humans, the ability to negotiate the rules of games from chess to Fortnite is a good measure of machine intelligence.

These days, it’s not just adults and children who will be revisiting the heated debate about whether or not there’s any value to video games. In some households, it’s almost as likely to be a grown-up who responds to suggestions they might like to cut down their screen time by brandishing a virtual fistful of links to research showing the potential benefits to mental agility and hand-eye coordination.

As even the most superficial glance into the history of computer-based games reveals, there’s nothing new about this. Back in 1948, at the dawn of the information technology age, one of the first applications that Alan Turing devised for intelligent machines was the ability to play chess. In his case, he was racing ahead of what was practically possible, outlining conceptually how a device with the capability he believed was achievable would tackle the challenge.

For many years, chess was seen as one of the perfect tests of a machine’s ability to mimic human ‘intelligence’ – a combination of rapid calculation and spontaneous action rather than just grinding through a series of instructions based on a set of rules. Yet even before IBM’s Deep Blue had defeated world champion Garry Kasparov for the first time in February 1996, the artificial intelligence community was looking to games as the ideal format in which to develop and test its work.

‘Playing Smart: On Games, Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence’ by Julian Togelius (The MIT Press, £16.99, ISBN 978026239031) is the latest addition to MIT Press’s ‘Playful Thinking’ series; a series of small-format books designed to slip into a pocket or backpack that provide concise overviews of different aspects of the history and possible future of various aspects of games technology. Combining depth with readability they’re aimed at readers who “are interested in playing more thoughtfully and thinking more playfully”.

The emphasis here is very much on intelligence, with academic and games expert Julian Togelius exploring how activities we’d naturally think of as ‘games’ are used to test AI algorithms, challenge our thinking and better understand both natural and artificial intelligence. In the future, Togelius argues, game designers will be able to create smarter games that make us smarter in turn, applying advanced AI to help design games. AI can do more for game design than providing a skillful opponent, he claims. By studying how we play and design games, we can better understand how humans and machines think.

Even if you’re not a gamer, you might want to read up on the subject to prepare yourself for the next time a youngster justifies their Fortnite habit by quoting the ‘theory of proximal zones of development’. In short, developmental psychologists argue that children typically choose play activities that are beyond their existing capacities, because they’re the most rewarding. You don’t need to be familiar with the jargon of the games themselves to turn this into a useful conversation about the pros and cons of gaming. ‘Playing Smart’ is an excellent way to prepare yourself for that debate.

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