University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, February 27th 2009
Speaker: Nathan Ensmenger, Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania
Subject: Is Chess the Drosophila of AI? Computer Games as Experimental Technologies in Artificial Intelligence
Refreshments served in Room 216 Physics at 3:15 p.m.

Since the mid-1960s, researchers in computer science have famously referred to chess as the "drosophila" of artificial intelligence. What they seem to mean by this is that chess, like the common fruit fly, is an accessible, familiar, and relatively simple experimental technology that nonetheless can be productively used to produce valid knowledge about other, more complex systems. But for historians of science and technology, the analogy between chess and drosophilia assumes a larger significance. As Robert Kohler has ably described, the decision to adopt drosophila as the organism of choice for genetics research had far-reaching implications for the development of 20th century biology. In a similar manner, the decision to focus on chess as the measure of both human and computer intelligence had important and unintended consequences for artificial intelligence research. This paper explores the emergence of chess as an experimental technology, its significance in the developing moral economy of the AI community, and the unique ways in which the decision to focus on chess shaped the program of AI research in the decade of the 1970s. More broadly, it attempts to open up the virtual black box of computer software -- and of computer games in particular -- to the scrutiny of historical and sociological analysis.

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