Tag Archives: AIs

Scientists ask the public’s help in getting to the bottom of consciousness — by cracking a chess problem

Sir Roger Penrose from Oxford’s Mathematical Institute has a quest for you, a quest which will see you topple the belligerence of a dark king and hone in on what it means to be human.

Image via Pexels.

We define what it means to be human by our consciousness. It’s this self-awareness that we call upon to set ourselves apart from everything else under the sun, and yet, we can’t explain it any better than we could millennia ago. We’ve tried pinpointing where it’s anchored into the brain (see here and here), we’ve developed some interesting theories about how it works, but we’ve never managed to replicate it, not even in our most powerful thinking machines.

So what is consciousness, and what is it about it that we’ve failed to instill in a computer? That’s what Sir Penrose wants to find out — and he needs the help of everyone who will join him. In a public challenge set to coincide with the launch of the Penrose Institute (a UK-based research group affiliated with Oxford University and University College London), the Sir and the institute’s fellows ask people to solve a chess problem they believe can determine what sets our mind apart from machines.


“We know that there are things that the human mind achieves that even the most powerful supercomputer cannot, but we don’t know why,” Sir Roger Penrose from the Mathematical Institute of Oxford told The Telegraph.

“If you put this puzzle into a chess computer, it just assumes a black win because of the number of pieces and positions, but a human will look at this and know quickly that is not the case.”


Computers are often compared to our minds, but in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, published in 1989, Sir Penrose argued that not even quantum computers could rival our brain. Better understanding quantum physics might help us get to the bottom of consciousness, he adds. It’s a pretty controversial view, but Sir Penrose argues that there isn’t any data showing that the two aren’t related, so why not explore the possibility?

Still, we have to start from somewhere, and narrowing down the list of possibilities is a good first step. So the chess challenge was issued to determine what sets the human mind and its greatest emulator — supercomputers — apart. Here’s the problem:

Image credits Penrose Institute.

The goal is to figure out a way to legally get the white player to draw with the black, or outright win. A computer will always assume the black will win in this scenario, because the three bishops will force it to calculate all possible positions, which “will rapidly expand to something that exceeds all the computational power on planet Earth”, Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph explains.

But it should be easy for a human to solve, Sir Penrose says — given that you know the rules of chess. It isn’t going to give us the answers to consciousness by itself, but it’s definitely a fresh approach on a subject that has eluded us for a long time. And it might help with the existential angst people are feeling more and more lately in regards to AIs.

“If we find out how humans differ from computers, then it could have profound sociological implications,” Sir Penrose added.

“People get very depressed when they think of a future where robots or computers will take their jobs, but it might be that there are areas where computers will never be better than us, such as creativity.”

If you do take on this quest and succeed, you should email your results to puzzles@penroseinstitute.com.

What the team is most interested isn’t the solution itself, but how you got there — the thought process that led you to the solution. Was it a sudden revelation, a flash of inspiration, or did you need days full of perspiration to crack the dark king’s ploy?

Don’t be shy on the details, and you might just prove to be the key to getting to the bottom of consciousness.