4 Classic Battles Between Man (or Horse) and Machine

Nothing could prepare Jeopardy! champ, author and regular mental_floss magazine columnist Ken Jennings for the battle he's about to face. In episodes that will air next month, Ken will take on fellow Jeopardy! genius Brad Rutter and Watson, an IBM supercomputer. Yesterday, the three challengers squared off in a trial round for the press. So far, it's not looking too good for mankind – Watson came in first. The final match-up should be one of epic proportions, but it's not the first time silicon has squared off against a biological opponent. Here are four stories of man versus machine that are sure to get your gears turning.

1. Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Thought and Deep Blue

Garry Kasparov became a Grandmaster chess player at the age of 17, held the World Championship title for nearly 22 years, and is still the highest-rated player to have ever touched a rook. To those outside the chess world, though, he is probably best remembered for playing against a computer.

The competition between Kasparov and computers had been long-standing; starting in 1989 when the Russian handily defeated an earlier IBM supercomputer, Deep Thought, in a 2-0 shutout.

However, in February 1996, IBM returned with Deep Blue, a supercomputer with custom-made chess-playing processors capable of analyzing 100 million moves per second. This time around, Deep Blue surprised everyone by defeating Kasparov in the first match of their 6-game battle. But Kasparov fought back, beating the machine 4-2. Unfortunately, his victory was short-lived.

The engineers at IBM took Deep Blue back to the lab and were able to double its processing power, bumping its analysis to 200,000,000 moves per second, up to 30 moves ahead. This proved to be too much for Kasparov in their May 1997 rematch, as the Grandmaster bowed to the machine by a score of 3 1/2 points to 2 1/2 points.

Kasparov asked for a tie-breaker match, but IBM refused. Instead, they retired Deep Blue and dismantled it. Parts of Blue now reside at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., and at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Just because his most famous rival went into retirement didn’t mean Kasparov was done with computer opponents. In 2003, he played against two different chess programs - Deep Junior (named as an homage to Deep Blue, but not related) and X3D Fritz. Both matches resulted in a draw.

2. A Horse vs. Tom Thumb

Aside from having a great, flourishing name, John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe was a lawyer working for the B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad. As the railway was being built, Latrobe witnessed an unusual test of endurance and speed between one of America's first Iron Horses and a four-legged, flesh-and-blood competitor.

The year was 1830 and the first American-built steam locomotive, nicknamed Tom Thumb, was being tested on a 13-mile run between Baltimore and Ellicott Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland. The locomotive ran on a track that was parallel to an existing set of tracks used by a horse-drawn cart. On August 28, the horse driver, probably feeling a bit threatened by this new technology, challenged the designer and engineer of the locomotive, Peter Cooper, to a race. While Tom Thumb could only chug along at a top speed of 18mph – about 10mph slower than a good horse could gallop – the machine could maintain that speed over the distance, whereas the horse would eventually slow down. Thinking he had a sure win, Cooper accepted and the two lined up on their respective tracks.

The horse took an early lead as the locomotive required more than a quarter of a mile to build speed. But once it had a full head of steam, the locomotive quickly caught up. For a brief stint, Latrobe says, “The race was neck and neck, nose and nose.” But soon, “The engine passed the horse and a great ‘hurrah’ heralded the victory.” Just as the horse cart was about to concede, a pulley slipped on Tom Thumb, causing the locomotive to lose steam. As the machine cruised to a stop, the horse burst back into the lead. Cooper was able to get the locomotive fixed and regain much of the lost ground, but in the end, nature won out over machine.

Despite the outcome, the railroad company was convinced of the locomotive's dominance. On July 31, 1831, less than a year after the race took place, all horses on the B&O Railroad were officially replaced with steam locomotives.

3. Piet Mondrian vs. an IBM 7094 digital computer

On the surface, the works of Piet Mondarin, one of the founding fathers of the modern art movement, appear to be simple. But once you start examining the finer details, you begin to uncover a deeper meaning and sense of purpose behind his “abstract geometry” pieces.

A. Michael Noll was a creative pioneer in his own right, as one of the first people to use computers in the creation of artistic works. Noll's early-1960s art required hours of designing complex computer programs that would be interpreted by the room-sized computers at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where Noll worked. The printed output of the computer's calculations formed the basis for his art.

One of Noll's 1964 experiments was an attempt to recreate the style of Mondrian's artwork. He wanted to know if a computer, using random processes, could create images that were just as stylistically interesting and appealing to the eye. To find out, Noll chose to emulate Mondrian's 1917 piece, Composition With Lines, a series of sometimes-intersecting horizontal and vertical lines, arranged to create the vague outline of an undefined circle.

Using an IBM 7094 Data Processing System control panel, Noll was able to write a program that would draw lines anywhere within a defined circle, so that every possible point would be just as likely to contain the beginning or end of a line. This made the drawing purely random, unlike the more precise and purposeful aesthetic of Mondrian's original work. With these instructions, the computer created Noll's version, Computer Composition With Lines.

To scientifically gauge people's reactions to the drawing, Noll showed it to 98 colleagues at Bell Laboratories, and two people outside the office. He asked his subjects the following two questions: Which picture was made by a computer? Which do you find more appealing?

Only 28% were able to correctly identify the computer-created art. And if you look at the two pieces side-by-side, it's easy to see why. The Mondrian piece has an underlying order, just as one might expect a computer to “think” when drawing. However, a surprising 59% of respondents said they actually preferred the computer version, describing it as more varied, more imaginative, and more abstract than the Mondrian.

4. Marion Tinsley vs. Chinook

Marion Tinsley is widely considered to be the best player of checkers (also called draughts) in history. He went undefeated during World Checkers Championship games, held the title multiple times, and only lost seven matches total over his 40-year career.

Tinsley's greatest (and some say only) competition came in the form of Chinook, a computer program written by Johnathan Schaeffer, a professor at the University of Alberta. Schaeffer and his team of researchers started writing Chinook in 1989. By 1990, the software had advanced enough to earn second place (behind Tinsley) in a qualifying tournament to gain a spot at the World Championship games.

However, the American Checkers Federation and English Draughts Association decided the computer would not be eligible to play for the championship. But reigning champ Tinsley wanted to take on the computer — so much so that he gave up his title in protest and went on to play Chinook in a match dubbed “The Man vs. Machine World Championship.”

The Championship was a pretty even match-up with the two competitors playing to 33 draws. But in the end, Tinsley beat Chinook with four wins, while the computer program handed Tinsley two of his seven career losses. During the battle, after Schaeffer had made a move for Chinook, Tinsley looked across the table and said, “You're going to regret that.” Sure enough, 26 moves later, Chinook had no choice but to resign the game. After the tournament was over, Schaeffer went back through his records and found that Tinsley was right - it was after that one bad move that Tinsley took control of the board and Chinook never had a chance to win.

The two opponents had a rematch in 1994, but Tinsley had to withdraw after only six games due to his failing health. After Tinsley left the competition, number two-rated player Don Lafferty took over and played Chinook to a draw. However, because Tinsley had conceded, Chinook became the first computer to become a world champion in any game with human opponents. Sadly, a week after his withdrawal from the match, Tinsley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died less than a year later.

Chinook and Lafferty battled again in 1995 when Chinook defended its title with a 1-0 win (and 31 draws). After the match, Schaeffer took Chinook out of competition so he could focus on the theory behind playing checkers. To that end, in July 2007, Schaeffer and his team announced in Science journal, that they had “solved” checkers, meaning they could determine “the final result in a game with no mistakes made by either player” after only one move. It would now be pointless for any human to play Chinook, as every match would either end in a draw or defeat at the hands of the computer.
* * * * *
So what do you think - Do Ken and Brad have a chance against Watson? Or will the machine win again in the end?

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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