Quiescence search

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Quiescence search is an algorithm typically used to evaluate minimax game trees in game-playing computer programs. It mitigates the effect of the horizon problem faced by AI engines for various games like chess and Go.

Human players usually have enough intuition to decide whether to abandon a bad-looking move, or search a promising move to a great depth. A quiescence search attempts to emulate this behavior by instructing a computer to search "interesting" positions to a greater depth than "quiet" ones to make sure there are no hidden traps and to get a better estimate of its value.

Any sensible criterion may be used to distinguish "quiet" moves from "noisy" moves; high activity (high movement on a chess board, extensive capturing in Go, for example) is commonly used for board games. As the main motive of quiescence search is usually to get a good value out of an imperfect evaluation function, it may also make sense to detect wide fluctuations in values returned by a simple heuristic evaluator over several ply. Modern chess engines may search certain moves up to 2 or 3 times deeper than the minimum. In highly "unstable" games like Go and reversi, a rather large proportion of computer time may be spent on quiescence searching.

The horizon effect[edit]

The horizon effect is a problem in artificial intelligence which can occur when a search of a game tree is limited. In many games, the number of possible states or positions is too great for an exhaustive search to be practical. Computer programs search a subset of the game tree and use heuristics to estimate the value of individual positions. Due to the limitation of this search, it's possible for the computer to identify a move that is optimal up to the given search depth, but that leads to a suboptimal position beyond that depth, of which the computer is unaware. Quiescence search attempts to mitigate this issue by extending the search depth in high activity positions where the heuristic value may have significant fluctuations between moves.


This pseudocode illustrates the concept algorithmically:

function quiescence_search(node, depth) is
    if node appears quiet or node is a terminal node or depth = 0 then
        return estimated value of node
        (recursively search node children with quiescence_search)
        return estimated value of children

function normal_search(node, depth) is
    if node is a terminal node then
        return estimated value of node
    else if depth = 0 then
        if node appears quiet then
            return estimated value of node
            return estimated value from quiescence_search(node, reasonable_depth_value)
        (recursively search node children with normal_search)
        return estimated value of children