This Saturday, as about 700 of the nation’s top crossword solvers gather in the Grand Ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, there will be an interloper lurking in the back of the room.
The interloper is known as Dr. Fill. Unlike the other assembled crossword experts, Dr. Fill is not human. The Doctor is a crossword-solving program, and will be running on the notebook computer of Matt Ginsberg, a software engineer from Eugene, Ore. When the bell rings and humans start solving the first of seven championship puzzles, Ginsberg will hit “enter” and Dr. Fill will get to work, in an attempt to achieve the highest score in the tournament. (Dr. Fill isn’t officially entered, but anyone whose final score is better will get an “I Beat Dr. Fill” button from tournament organizer Will Shortz.)
Our brainy pastimes are falling, one by one, to silicon-based competitors. First there was chess, with Deep Blue beating world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Since then, programs have bested humans at poker, and Ginsberg himself has designed software that can beat the world’s experts in bridge. Last year, in a highly publicized match, the IBM supercomputer Watson emerged victorious in “Jeopardy!” against all-time champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. But crossword puzzles have always seemed like an impossible hurdle for artificial intelligence, or A.I.; their emphasis on tricky wordplay would seem to make them immune to those without human powers of wit and association.
Still, Ginsberg, who runs a software company called On Time Systems that figures out optimal aircraft routes, was inspired by Watson’s success to try to improve automated crossword solving. Ginsberg is a longtime crossword aficionado: As an undergraduate at Wesleyan in 1976, he created an early program to fill grids with words. Over the past few years, he has made more than two dozen puzzles for The New York Times, including one last year coconstructed with the actress Dana Delany.
Ginsberg’s not the first computer scientist to tackle the A.I. crossword challenge. In 1999, Michael Littman of Duke University worked with grad students to create Proverb, a program that would have finished 147th out of 255 contestants had it been entered in that year’s tournament. Dr. Fill takes advantage of advances in computing power and data-mining to do better. Ginsberg conservatively guesses that Dr. Fill can place in the top 30 or so this year, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good: In simulations of 15 past tournaments, it came out on top three times.
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