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Poker and AI: Will the Game Be Fun Anymore?

Artificial intelligence has already proven its mettle in alleviating or conquering a number of modern problems. And as the technology grows, humans are pointing AI at increasingly complex subjects – personalized learning and vaccine discovery, for instance – in order to find more solutions. But there’s one potential issue AI can’t solve, and the irony is that artificial intelligence tech is to blame for all the fuss -- poker and AI. If true, the problem is something many of us won’t soon get over: poker isn’t any fun anymore.

This isn’t settled science, by any means, but aficionados of the game who also know their tech can tell you that AI is revolutionizing poker, just as it has so many other areas of our lives. Artificial intelligence is particularly adept at game theory optimization, which weighs probabilities and chance, tracks multi-variable situations and formulates ideal gaming strategies. If you’re a poker player, you can imagine how all those tools might make the best AI a formidable opponent.

In 2017, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University proved it. After their AI software, dubbed Claudico, was defeated by four of the world’s top no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em players two years earlier, CMU came back for the rematch with Libratus, a program that defeated the same group of humans – a significant milestone in the advancement of artificial intelligence.

“Since the earliest days of AI research, beating top human players has been a powerful measure of progress in the field,” said Tuomas Sandholm, a professor of computer science at CMU. “Poker poses a far more difficult challenge than [chess and Jeopardy], as it requires a machine to make extremely complicated decisions based on incomplete information while contending with bluffs, slow play and other ploys.”

But as the tech becomes more dynamic and incorporates more deep-learning principles, it has begun to grasp some of the subtler, more human-like qualities that once gave people a leg up at the card table. As the complexities of poker become more effortless for AI, and as the programs become more consistently successful at trumping humans with brainpower and guile, the question has to be asked: Are the machines sucking all the joy from the game?

Most humans still prefer to play cards against other humans. Although AI’s established mastery over the game, for some, may let a bit of the air out of poker’s mystique, don’t expect people to walk away from the table over it. Besides, artificial intelligence has the potential to help humans learn the game, mimic AI strategies and challenge the very best machines in order to sharpen their hold ‘em skills for the real world.

And as Sandholm said in 2015, ahead of the first challenge setting CMU’s machine against humanity’s elite poker players: “Computing the world’s strongest strategies for this game was a major achievement, with the algorithms having future applications in business, military, cyber security and medical arenas.”

Because solving the world’s problems can be quite a bit of fun, too.

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