Computers can’t solve this chess problem. Can you?


Artificial intelligence hasn’t taken over the world … yet. But while humans can still outperform computers on most high-level intelligence tasks, at this point most people would concede the game of chess to the machines. The best chess-playing computer programs can already school just about any average human player, and they’ve proven capable of beating our grandmasters too.

But maybe there’s still some hope for us, even when it comes to chess. Scientists with the Penrose Institute have devised a unique chess problem that’s fairly simple for humans to solve, but which seems to irreparably stump even the most sophisticated of chess programs. In fact, the problem is so bewildering for computers that even if they’re given an “infinite” amount of time to solve it, they still get it wrong.

Could this chess problem illustrate a fundamental difference between human and artificial intelligence? Penrose Institute researchers think it might. In fact, they think that the ability to solve this chess problem might be the key to understanding consciousness, and maybe even prove that the human mind operates on the quantum level in a way that is currently beyond our comprehension, reports The Telegraph.

The chess problem is represented by the following board. Researchers promise this represents a legal chess position:


The object of the puzzle is to envision how the white player can either win or draw. At first glance, things look pretty hopeless for the white player, with just a king and four pawns remaining. In fact, when this problem is given to a computer program, it always considers the game a win for black. But average human chess players ought to be able to see that a draw — and possibly even a win for white — is possible.

Can you solve it?

How the human mind works

Researchers don’t want to reveal the correct answer just yet. Rather, they want you to e-mail your solutions, along with some explanation for how those solutions occurred to you, to What was your thought process? Was there a flash of insight? Did you need to leave the puzzle for a while and come back to it?

Researchers hope that by analyzing people’s solutions and explanations, they might learn something unique about how the human mind works.

Here’s what researchers have revealed about the problem so far: the reason that computers can’t seem to solve it is because “the three bishops forces the computer to perform a massive search of possible positions that will rapidly expand to something that exceeds all the computational power on planet earth.”

In other words, this puzzle forces even our most powerful supercomputers into a seemingly endless series of calculations. But the human mind doesn’t fall into this trap.

“We know that there are things that the human mind achieves that even the most powerful supercomputer cannot, but we don’t know why,” said Sir Roger Penrose, whose philosophy and work inspired the institute that bears his name. “There is now evidence that there are quantum effects happening in biology, such as in photosynthesis or in bird migration, so there may be something similar happening in the mind, which is a controversial idea.”

Quantum effects or not, it’s a fascinating conundrum. Analyzing this problem could lead to a better understanding of how consciousness works.

Then again, a better understanding of how consciousness works could also lead to more advanced models for artificial intelligence. So while solutions for this chess problem might belong exclusively to the domain of the human mind for now, perhaps even this reprieve from the machine apocalypse is only temporary.