Computers that know how to bluff

A computer is playing a quartet of top human poker players at no-limit Texas hold’em. Will it win? So far the AI, dubbed Libratus, is crushing the human race, but we’re only four days into the 20-day tournament, so stay tuned.

One of the vaguely disturbing things about machines that compete with people is that they never get tired, ever. In this YouTube video, one of the players talks about how grueling it was to play marathon daily sessions, lasting eight to ten hours a day for two weeks straight, with a computer than reportedly never broke a sweat. He was talking about the 2015 “Brains vs. AI” poker tournament, in which team human beat a predecessor of Libratus. This year’s edition of the AI is much more sophisticated:

“The thing that impressed me the most is how unpredictable and random it was able to maneuver post-flop,” said Jimmy Chou, another pro. “It also seems to understand some advanced strategies that many top regulars implement in their own game. We lost the battle today but we are looking to strike back tomorrow!”

Famous last words for human cognitive supremacy?

If Libratus can beat some of the world’s best humans in No-Limit Texas Hold’em, it will be a milestone in AI research comparable to Deep Blue’s triumph in chess and AlphaGo’s victory last year in Go. In fact, it may be more significant, as most real-world problems are closer to a game of poker, a delicate dance between multiple people, all lacking a perfect view of the entire situation. As John Von Neumann, one of the pioneers of game theory put it, “Real life is not like that. Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do.”

Unlike chess and go, poker is an imperfect information game, meaning that each player has incomplete knowledge about what’s going on (i.e. what cards the other player(s) is holding). In that sense, poker strategies have applications to real-world decision-making in the realms of business and politics, among others. If AI masters poker, it may be only a matter of time before computers are enlisted to hammer out deals in corporate boardrooms and ministerial meetings.

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