Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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Voice Chess Challenger is a gabby and much smarter version of the computer chess player turned out by Fidelity Electronics nearly three years ago. Back then it seemed remarkable that a tiny computer could play chess at all, even though its play was less than brilliant. Now the chess ability of the reprogrammed chip is high enough to make any parlor wood-pusher loosen his collar and roll up his sleeves, and it is the machine's distinctly machine-like speech that is the dazzling gimmick. Turn the doodad on, and it says, dropping each word like a cinder block, "I— am— Fidelity's — Chess — Challenger — your —computer — opponent." The speech is by no means as friendly and natural sounding as Speak & Spell's, but it is meant to intimidate adults, not encourage children. The voice has no great utility, except as a signal that the machine has finished cogitating and is ready to play.

At "tournament practice," the sixth of ten levels, the Challenger is supposed to average three minutes of thought for each move, but in dodgy situations it will brood for 15 minutes or so, and the human player may well choose to spend his time worming the dog or writing a threatening letter to the telephone company. The machine itself does not yet have a dog or a typewriter, and it becomes impatient within a couple of minutes when its opponent is thinking. Then it says, gruffly, "Enter—your—move." There is a useful voice turn-off button for such moments. Except for this bit of coffee-housing, Challenger has no small talk and no emotion, and after the human player has forced a perilous and gallant end-game win at level 6, it is a real disappointment to hear it say, uncaring and without expression: "I —lose." Voice Chess Challenger costs a pricey $325, but you can pay that to have a couple of teeth filled and get conversation no better. The cost seems justified for a machine that knows and can teach some 40 book openings, can play itself, do problems, and at its "infinite search" level, can ponder one move for weeks or more. No batteries are needed; Challenger runs on house current.

Big Irak is a six-wheeled tank that is quite endearing, as war machines go. Milton Bradley's big computer action toy chirps merrily as it sets out on its rounds, plays a little tune when it is finished, and then yips five times like an anxious puppy when it is left turned on and unattended. Twenty-four glorious buttons on its carapace accomplish the programming. An eight-year-old achieves something impressive when he plans a complicated route under the dining room table to attack the cat and then translates his intentions into an orderly series of commands for the versatile machine.

Big Trak costs about $43, and a dump trailer available separately costs $13. For pacifists who disapprove of Big Trak's flashing cannon, Fundimensions of Mount Clemens, Mich., makes a similar programmable beach buggy for $39.95.

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