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No. 2783:
Humans, Computers, and Puzzles

Today, we puzzle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Puzzles are, well, puzzling. Not just the puzzles themselves, but the fact that we're so drawn to them. Daily life is filled with problems that need solving, problems like how to get dinner on the table. Why would we want to take on additional problems? Problems with no reward other than the satisfaction of solving them?

The short answer is that we're wired that way, and with good reason. An attraction to jigsaw puzzles helps children with shape recognition, hand-eye coordination, logical thinking, and even perseverance — all valuable survival skills.

A child playing with a jigsaw puzzle

And skills that, until recently, were uniquely human. Certainly, some animals can solve rudimentary puzzles, and not everyone's a puzzle wiz. But as a species we're head and shoulders above the competition. That is, until we throw computers into the mix.

Computers now surpass the best chess playing humans. And IBM's Watson was such a powerhouse at Jeopardy! it led contestant Ken Jennings to scrawl in surrender, "I for one welcome our new computer overlords." But for every computer success, there remain countless examples where computers can't compete with humans.

Crossword puzzles are a good example. At the 2012 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a computer program named Dr. Fill — that's F-I-L-L — was beaten by 140 of 600 contestants. Not bad, but far from rising above the fray. Dr. Fill did pretty well on standard puzzles. But when a puzzle contained a peculiar twist, the program ran into difficulties.

Crossword puzzle

Consider the clue "brand name targets." Maybe the answer has something to do with fashion conscious teenagers? Wrong. The correct answer is "cattle." They're the target of branding irons bearing names. Or consider the clue "Apollo 11 and 12 [180 degrees]." Apollo 11 and 12 were both MOON MISSIONS. Spell this phrase backward, replace the M's with W's, and you get the answer (SNOISSIWNOOW). Rotated 180 degrees it reads MOON MISSIONS.

Are such contrivances fair? Very much so. Avid crossword players will tell you it's all part of the fun. And of course, crossword puzzles allow for such cryptic clues because players can glean information from crossing words. The best human players synthesize all that information to arrive at solutions that, as of yet, computers can't.

Computers will undoubtedly get better. Game playing and puzzle solving are vibrant areas of investigation in the world of artificial intelligence. No one knows how far computers can be pushed; if, in fact, they'll one day dominate crossword puzzle competitions. But even if they do, will they ever feel the sublime satisfaction that comes with solving a really difficult puzzle?

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For related episodes, see KASPAROV AND DEEP BLUE and WATSON.

S. Lohr. "It's Man Over Machine In Crosswords, for Now." New York Times, March 19, 2012, B5.

R. Rosen. "Meet Dr. Fill, the Computer Who May Best the World's Top Crossword-Puzzle Solvers." The Atlantic, March 12, 2012. See also: Accessed March 20, 2012.

Crossword puzzles and their effect on the brain

The picture of the boy is from the Science360 website of the U.S. government. All other pictures are publicly available on the website.

This episode was first aired on March 22, 2012