Are improvements in computer chess due mostly to hardware or software?
My recent revival in interest in computer chess/checkers/gameplaying was in part spawned by the impression (not particularly support by evidence at the time) that the dramatic increase in computer chess strength must have come from more than just basic hardware improvements. It seemed obvious to me that some fraction of the increase in the play was due to new cleverness and discoveries by chess programmers. But I had no real datapoints to figure out what that split might have been.
Until I found this 2010 post by Bob Hyatt. Bob has been an expert programmer in computer chess for decades, first for Cray Blitz and later for Crafty, an awesome open source Chess program. It’s source code is amazingly interesting, and has tons of features which are pretty cool.
In the forum post, Bob compared Crafty 23.4 (which was at the time the highest ranked version he had produced) with Crafty 10.18, the version which was available 15 years earlier from 1995. Running on the same hardware, you find that Crafty 23.4 was 360 ELO points higher than older version.
But how much would we expect to gain from the factor of 1000x increase in speed between 1995 and 2006? I remember reading that each doubling of CPU speed would be worth about 100 ELO points. Bob did some experiments that suggests for Crafty, that result might be something more like 80 ELO points. That means that from hardware improvements alone, you might expect to see an increase of 800 ELO points.
This would seem to imply that only 1/3 of the improvement of Crafty was due to software, with the remaining 2/3 of the improvement due to increases in hardware speed. Bob doesn’t believe the 360/800 numbers are accurate (they are likely too broad, 1995 Crafty was probably not 1100 points weaker than 2010 Crafty) but that the ratio of the two is likely to stand up.
Bob did this post to respond to this rather long thread which I find much harder to draw any real conclusions from. But it’s still good reading.
But it would seem that my intuition is likely wrong: that at least for Crafty, about 2/3 of its gains are likely to increases in hardware speed, with only 1/3 coming from software improvements. Interesting.