International Business Machines, one of the largest providers of computer hardware, software, and consulting services, loves to challenge its computers to compete with humans. A little more than a decade ago, the company’s famous Deep Blue computer beat World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. Just last month, Big Blue announced plans for a computer called “Watson” to attempt to best human players on the Jeopardy television show.
Just yesterday, however, the company released what are, perhaps, its most audacious plans yet. For the past three years, it has secretly been developing a computer that will compete in the 2010 Men’s World Curling Championship.
The specifications for the computer, known as “Ice Blue,” are impressive. Deep Blue, from 1997, was able to perform about eleven billion floating point operations per second (gigaFLOPS). On the other hand, Ice Blue, with the ability to perform about one trillion floating point operations per second (teraFLOPS), will be approximately 100 times faster. To harness this power, the machine has over five million lines of code, custom-written by IBM engineers in close consultation with some of the greatest curling experts in the world.
Ray Stevenson, spokesman for IBM, told a press conference exactly why Big Blue decided to build this computer. “We caused quite a stir when we beat the World Chess Champion with a machine. We also anticipate causing quite a stir when we are able to beat players on Jeopardy with ‘Watson.’ However, we wanted to do something with sports. Curling’s complexity has sometimes been referred to as ‘chess on ice.’ Needless to say, we were drawn to the sport because of this.”
Unlike previous competition computers, Ice Blue will control a combination of small robots. These robots, akin to the incredibly over-engineered devices that bring players the kicking tee during rugby games, will be relatively dumb. They operate mainly as remote controls so that Ice Blue can sweep the ice and throw the curling stone. Each sweep—done to reduce friction on the ice and change the speed of the curling stone—the robot performs will need to be calculated by Ice Blue. Anyone familiar with curling knows that players are often required to sweep faster than a maid the day before Christmas vacation. This is why Ice Blue is imbued with so much processing power by its engineers.
While the outcome of this man vs. machine competition cannot be predicted, the planners of the World Curling Championship are ecstatic. Perhaps this is because such an advanced computer’s first foray into sports will be sure to put curling into the history books. The real excitement, however, may simply be the promise of such an event to double the number of television viewers of a normal curling competition from 512 to 1024.
[• This story, marked with a • is weekend entertainment content only and should not to be considered factual ]