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5 things your brain does better than a computer

July 29, 2012, 12:05 p.m.
Crossword puzzles

Photo: Lori L. Salteri/Flickr

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Solve crossword puzzles

In the late '90s, New York Times crossword puzzle editor and famed puzzle master Will Shortz declared that computers would never compete with humans in solving crossword puzzles. Michael Littman, a computer scientist at Duke University, picked up Shortz's gauntlet and lead a team in developing Proverb, a computer program designed to quickly solve crossword puzzles. Littman's program was entered into the 1999 Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and rocketed into 147th place.

It hasn't gotten much better for computer program puzzle solvers since then. Computers solve crossword puzzles by sifting through a database of known clues and answers and then doing a lot of number crunching to find the correct arrangement of words. Computers do OK when the clues match something found in their databanks but they stumble when faced with something out of the ordinary — Proverb finished near the bottom in a puzzle that involved "Spoonerisms," clues that required the switching of initial consonant sounds. For example, "shoot the moon" begets "moot the shoon." It was never programmed to know how to handle that type of clue and fell flat on its face when asked to solve them.