The game of shogi or Japanese Chess is something I haven’t discussed in a long, long, long, LONG time in this blog.1 For a time before I moved to Ireland, I played Shogi regularly with co-workers and a few Japanese friends, but while living in Ireland, I had only one friend to play against and his skill was considerably better than mine. He had a very patient, gentle approach, that wore me down piece by piece by simply foiling each of my attacks. Subtle but brilliant. Since coming back to the US though, I haven’t had time to play even once, let alone find a partner.
So, I was happy to see this article from the Asahi Shinbun about a recent match between a champion shogi player and a computer. As the article shows, the computer was able to wear down Miss Shimizu and methodically defeat once time ran short. Also as noted:
When computer programs became faster and smarter, association officials banned professional players from going mano a mano with machines, ostensibly to protect the “dignity” of the sport.
From my own, much more amateur experience, I’ve noticed that Shogi computers games have a style of playing that’s very different than people, even stronger players. For example, I used to spend a lot of time playing against the classic Linux/UNIX game Xshogi, which was difficult even on a low-setting. I managed to only defeat it once, and only after I had to retract a couple moves. Many such simulations are set to do things like intentionally make mistakes at given intervals, while a human would never do that because of the ego-driven need to win. Instead I can imagine machines deriving satisfaction from merely executing a given set of instructions flawlessly than an abstract concept such as pride in victory. As long as it executes its instructions within the constraints specified, and completes the program to fruition, it will perform perfectly, while the more selfish Human will think about the goal and how to get there, possibly choosing a sub-optimal approach. It sounds like science-fiction, but I think there is some grain of truth to it.
So, if machines are (in theory) better at Shogi or other games (like Western Chess), and as the machines improve year after year, why even bother playing against them?
Because, in my opinion, it’s a good objective challenge. No matter how good you are, you can always turn up the difficulty of your opponent and thereby push yourself harder. Somehow, I am reminded of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (speaking of science-fiction), when Paul Atreides would undergo sword-training against robot simulators that could hurt or maim him. When the fighting was too easy, he would simply flip a switch and move it to the next difficulty. It placed him at great risk, but forced his sword skills to improve. Unlike a human, the combat wasn’t personal, but simply training. Maybe in the same way, battling wits with a machine at shogi, chess or whatever provides good training without the sense of investment, and humiliation at defeat, as long as you don’t personalize it unnecessarily. It is just a machine of course.
Random thoughts, but fun.
1 Most posts survived the demise of the Level 8 Buddhist blog, but the image files didn’t, so I just finally removed them. The surviving posts are all linked above. Times like this, I really do miss the old blog, and wish I hadn’t removed it. Oh well.