Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Man vs Machine: Challenging Human Supremacy at Chess

In the fall of 1977, I stumbled across a book on the shelf of the University of Toronto bookstore: Computer Chess by Monty Newborn. At the time I was in the third year of my undergraduate computer science program, and the thought of writing a program to play chess fired my imagination. As a chess player, I knew I was not good enough to be the world champion. But as a computer scientist, maybe I could write a program to become the world champion.

It did not take long before I realized my dream was much harder than I thought. Computer access was limited (it cost money), software development was laborious (University of Toronto was still using punched cards), and my time was at a premium (full-time student, part-time job, never enough time for my girlfriend). That is when I made the fateful decision to apply to graduate school. Until then I had no aspirations for graduate work, but I quickly realized that working on an M.Sc. thesis would give me the time to write a chess program.

I did my Masters and Ph.D. degrees on artificial intelligence applied to chess. In 1986, my chess program Phoenix tied for first place in the World Computer Chess Championship, so in some sense I realized by goal of becoming a world champion. But in the next world championship (1989) Phoenix crashed and burned (and did not rise from the ashes). I realized that I could not compete with the deep pockets of IBM's Deep Thought project, soon to become Deep Blue. That is when I moved on to checkers, but that is another story.

For most of the 1980s I was obsessed with computer chess programs. My research has taken me on to many other projects, but computer chess has always been my first love. So in 2016 when out of the blue an opportunity arose to work on a computer chess book, I jumped at the chance.

On November 5, the book comes out. Man vs Machine: Challenging Human Supremacy at Chess is co-authored with chess Grandmaster Karsten Müller. The book tells the human side of man playing machine at chess -- the chess players who wanted to defend humankind's honour and the scientists and hobbyists that wanted to advance technology. Karsten provided the insightful annotations to the key chess games, while I supplied the history and stories.


One of the highlights of the project was having a long phone call with Vladimir Kramnik, world chess champion from 2000-2008. He kindly agreed to write the foreword for the book. How cool is that???

You can order a copy here. It makes a great Christmas present!

Thank you to Hanon Russell for approaching me about doing the book, Karsten Müller for his excellent chess analysis, and Vladimir Kramnik for the foreword. It is a highlight of my academic career to work with such a talented team of people.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Resigning as Dean of Science

This evening I emailed to the Provost my letter of resignation as the Dean of the Faculty of Science.

Needless to say, this was a difficult decision. The University of Alberta has changed a lot in the last three years. The University's leadership has made decisions and taken actions that I cannot support. Therefore, the Faculty of Science would be better served by a different leader, one who is more in line with the expectations of the President and Provost.

My resignation takes effect October 1. I will use the next two months to tie up loose ends, complete my FEC evaluations, and assist the Interim Dean get up to speed (whoever that may be).

I have been at the University of Alberta for almost 35 years and am proud of the teaching, research, and administrative projects that I have been part of. I believe we accomplished much in Science over the past six years.

What am I going to do when my Deanship ends? I will continue to promote AI in the city/province/country, hope to restart my research program, and anticipate working on exciting new projects (on or off campus). I look forward to normal length working days, free time on the weekends, worry-free sleep, and receiving less than 100 emails a day.

It has been a pleasure being part of the excitement in the Faculty of Science. Great students, staff, instructors, and faculty translates to excellent undergraduate and graduate programs, and superb research. Thank you for the privilege of working with you and for you.

Pilgramage to Iceland

A few weeks ago I attended the International Joint Conference in Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Stockholm. It is one of the premier AI research conferences, and one that I have published in many times.

We traveled to Stockholm via Iceland, where I was delighted to get together with UAlberta alumni Yngvi Bjornsson, Bjorn Bjornsson, and Marius Olafsson.  Yngvi kindly toured us around, including helping me make a pilgrimage to the grave of Robert James Fischer -- Bobby Fisher, world chess champion 1972-1975. We do not need to go into the sad story of his life post his winning the world championship. However, to a young impressionable chess player in the early 1970s, Bobby was electrifying. He had to win every game, eschewing the easy draw. He played bold creative chess, resulting in numerous games of incredible beauty. He challenged the Soviet chess juggernaut -- and won. He was inspirational. I studied his games and dreamed of becoming the world chess champion.
Yngvi Bjornsson and Jonathan Schaeffer at the grave of Robert J. Fischer
I never came close to being world champion (although I am a ranked master). However, it motivated me to go into artificial intelligence research. If I could not be the world champion, then maybe I could build a program to be the world champion. I did not achieve that goal either (although my program Phoenix tied for first in the 1986 World Computer Chess Championship). Deep Blue came along and, well, the rest is history.

In the end I did become world champion: at checkers! Our checkers-playing program Chinook became the first program in any game to win a human world championship. And that would not have happened had I not been inspired by Bobby Fischer.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Not Even Bones

My daughter, Rebecca, decided at an early age (before 10 years old) that she would become a writer. As you might expect, I smiled at the thought that such a young person could know what she wanted to do in life.

Rebecca wrote her first full-length novel while still in high school. I was impressed with the story and the quality of her writing. She wasn't. She could do better, or so she said.

Over the years, Rebecca continued to refine her craft, including getting a writing degree from the University of British Columbia. Along the way she had a few short stories published and won a couple of awards. Great, so I thought, but how do you make a living from that?

In the Fall of 2016 she struck gold (figuratively, but I also hope literally): she attracted the interest of a major US book agent, and a few weeks later signed her first major publishing contract (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). You can read about it here.

On September 4, the first book of Rebecca Schaeffer's trilogy appears. Last week the cover art was revealed. Not Even Bones is for young adults with an interest in fantasy and horror:

Nita doesn’t murder supernatural beings and sell their body parts on the internet—her mother does that. Nita just dissects the bodies after they’ve been “acquired.” Until her mom brings home a live specimen and orders Nita to start cutting off pieces. Dissecting a teenage boy who won’t stop begging for help is a step too far. Nita wants out. But when she decides to save her mother’s victim, she ends up sold in his place—because Nita herself isn’t exactly “human.”  She has the ability to alter her biology, an ability that is priceless on the black market. Locked in a cage of her own, she struggles to escape. And to do that, Nita must ask herself if she’s willing to become the worst kind of monster.

It makes for a great Christmas present... for you, your family, and your friends! Preorder your copy now on Amazon.ca.

Cover art for Not Even Bones

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Alberta is Realizing the Value from Two Long-range Research Investments

In 2000, the Government of Alberta created Alberta Ingenuity, an organization to stimulate research in science and engineering (today it is called Alberta Innovates). One of their first initiatives was to create a program to fund research centers, areas where there was critical mass of world-class expertise in Alberta. In 2002, they announced their first two centers – in glycomics (studying the affects of sugar on the body’s chemistry) and machine learning (turning data into knowledge). These two centers, both housed in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, continue to this day under the names of the Alberta Glycomics Centre (AGC, www.glycomicscentre.ca) and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii, www.amii.ca).

From 2002 to the present – 15 years – the Government of Alberta has continued to invest in both centers. This has happened despite many vicissitudes, including difficult financial times and changes in political direction.  This type of long-term support is unusual in academia. Far more common is one-time term-limited funding. Alberta Ingenuity/Innovates had faith in the quality of the people involved, and in the progress the centers were making towards achieving important new results and then turning this new technology into economic value.

Now in 2017 we can take stock of what has been achieved. AGC researchers have numerous patents, technology licensing agreements, and local spinoff companies. Further, AGC was the catalyst that united all academic glycomics research in Canada into a national organization, GlycoNet. GlycoNet is funded by Ottawa at roughly the $5M per year level, excluding substantial funding from numerous provinces and companies. The University of Alberta leads this National Centre of Excellence and much of the money stays in Alberta. We are proud of the truly world-class stature that this group has.

Amii has been doing groundbreaking research for years. For over 25 years, the University of Alberta has ranked 2nd or 3rd in the world in artificial intelligence (AI) research and its prominent sub-area of machine learning (ML). In the past year AI has suddenly become “hot”. The global demand for AI/ML experts is huge. In their recent budget, Ottawa decided to create a national AI initiative, of which $25M is now coming to the University of Alberta to grow Amii. Further major Canadian and international companies are lined up to partner with Amii. In January the Royal Bank announced they are setting up a research office in Edmonton. Soon you will hear more announcements of major international companies doing the same. The economic impact for Edmonton will be huge, including attracting companies to town, retaining superb scientists in Edmonton, and creating new spinoff companies. The Government wants to diversity the economy. Amii’s world-class stature is going to help achieve that goal.

This is a perfect example of the importance of long-term fundamental research. All too often, we see governments investing in “get payback quick” schemes that look good in the short-term (i.e., in time for the next election) but do not necessarily have long-term impact. Both AGC and Amii started out doing fundamental (“basic”) research, but now we are seeing the benefits of this foundational work. By applying these ideas to solve industrial applications (“applied” research) and creating new products, Albertans will now realize a major economic return from the Government’s investment.

It is important to give credit where credit is due. As academics we sometimes are guilty of taking research funding for granted and not being suitably appreciative of the faith that the funders are putting in our ability to deliver value. On behalf of the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, I want to express my deepest heart-felt thank you to the Government of Alberta for their vision, initiative, and stick-with-it-ness – for believing in the AGC and Amii through thick and thin. In my 33 years of academic experience, this kind of investment is the exception. I am delighted that the AGC and Amii research programs are realizing the potential seen in 2002 and delivering major returns to the Alberta taxpayer.