The 35th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament took place this past weekend in Brooklyn, New York at the Marriott Hotel. Founded in 1978 by Will Shortz, the New York Times Crossword Puzzle editor and the godfather of American Crosswords, it is the oldest and largest crossword tournament held in the United States. It attracts hundreds of people and crossword aficionados (over 700 competitors this year) including this year a renowned player called “Dr. Fill”. Dr. Fill is not an ordinary crossword puzzle solver as he is actually a machine or a software program invented by Matt Ginsberg, a software engineer from Eugene, Oregon who is chief executive of On Time Systems whose software is used by the United States Air Force, for calculating the most efficient flight paths for aircraft.
Our intellectual pastimes are being challenged one by one by silicon-based competitors. Of course chess was the first game to be won by a machine. It happened in 1997 when world champion Garry Kasparov played against ‘Deep Blue’ in order to prove that man’s intelligence was superior to Artificial Intelligence or A.I.. Unfortunately Deep Blue won putting to shame the experts. This cleared the way for other software developers to create software which could imitate the reactions of a human brain and finally beat humans at their own games: poker, bridge, the TV game show “Jeopardy!” and scrabble. Crossword puzzles have been the last holdout because like machine translators they can’t really grasp idiomatic expressions, tricky plays on words, or definitions which depend on wit and association. But the temptation is too great to pit machine over man and Ginsberg was back this year to see if Dr. Fill could score more points than his human competitors. Dr. Fill takes advantage of advances in computing power and data-mining to do better than humans whose memory power is not as great.
So as it turns out Dr Fill only placed 141st in the competition (all of the competitors between 140 to the first place winner got a button saying “I beat Dr. Fill”). Dr. Fill got stumped by the second and fifth puzzles, described as “particularly innovative”. In those puzzles you had to swap some letters (“spoonerisms”), spell a word backwards and find some words that had to be written diagonally (Dr. Fill hadn’t been programmed for that). The winner of the competition, Dan Feyer (who won the last 2 tournaments as well), said he expected that the contest would include “a puzzle or two that involved innovative twists or patterns to trip up Dr. Fill.” Of course we can expect that Ginsberg will go back and program Dr. Fill to meet this challenge. Feyer goes on to say that as Ginsberg tinkers with his algorithms, he expects that Dr. Fill will eventually solve crosswords better than any human. Hmmm…
Let that not stop us from trying to do them because there are more reasons for doing crosswords than by proving that we can outdo a robot. One of our biggest challenges (especially for us baby boomers) is trying to keep our neurons functioning and thriving. One way of keeping them healthy is by doing mind games such as crossword puzzles. Of course for language learners the importance is two-fold: keeping our brains healthy (learning a foreign language is one way to keep our brains from aging too quickly) and acquiring new vocabulary and honing our language skills. Word finding and fluency is a type of process based in the speech and language centers of the brain. By doing challenging crossword puzzles, your brain will strengthen and your language skills will improve.
So to exercise your brains and strengthen your language skills check out my activity page where you will find many challenging crossword puzzles to do on line. Now where did I put my dictionary…?
1. Computer Competes in Crossword Tournament
2. “It’s a beautiful day for a crossword puzzle tournament” in New York
3. Man Scores over Computer at Crossword Puzzles | French Tribune
4. Man beats computer at crossword puzzles – so far
5. Computer program places 141st in national tournament | TG Daily
6. Digital Silence – Hardware, Software and Technology News
7. The computer’s next conquest: crossword puzzles | | The Bulletin
8. Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament Underway In Brooklyn – NY1.com
9. A.C.P.T. 2012: Meet Dr. Fill – NYTimes.com
10. A.C.P.T. 2012: Going Into the Finals – NYTimes.com
11. A.C.P.T. 2012: The Puzzlers Descend on the Marriott – NYTimes.com
12. A.C.P.T. 2012: How to Make a Tournament Float – NYTimes.com
13. A.C.P.T. 2012: Inside the Judges Room – NYTimes.com