The Future Of Poker

When exploring how evolving technology will affect different aspects of our lives and society more broadly, one of the most interesting things we tend to find is that consequences are not wholly positive or negative.

This is perhaps clearest in the constant debates about what technology will do to job markets. Common logic dictates (to many at least) that increasing automation and new tech will eliminate opportunities and bring about massive net losses in employment. On the other hand, there are more and more arguments suggesting that automation and AI will also create new jobs. One particularly optimistic piece on The Washington Post in 2018 even predicted that machines would create 58 million more jobs than they would displace over a four-year span!

This is not a piece about automation and jobs, but that example illustrates something we see so often in considerations of evolving technology: a dichotomy between positive and negative effects, or benefits and challenges. And as it so happens, this same dichotomy is present with regard to our primary subject here. When we consider the future of poker and how technology might change one of the most popular games and leisure activities in the world, we can see both negative and positive effects.

On the negative side, it is inevitable at this point that widespread AI will soon be able to consistently defeat humans at poker. For a long time, this was actually supposed to be a difficult task for AI to accomplish, simply because the process of winning a poker game seems to us so distinctly human. Just recently, Poker.org essentially outlined what it takes to win at poker, and did so with a list of proactive decisions and effective strategies, as opposed to proper calculations and the like. Victory in this popular card game, per this outline, takes discipline when choosing which hands to play, balancing activity, establishing relationships, learning to bet without emotion, and even handling bluffs properly.

Those processes are largely social and subjective in nature, as opposed to coolly mathematically or objectively analytical. These are the types of challenges and decisions that even advanced automated systems aren’t always equipped to handle. And yet, recent years have brought about surprising breakthroughs in AI poker competition. Most notably, a poker-specific AI designed by Facebook and Carnegie Mellon University essentially broke down the barrier. The system, named Pluribus, decisively outperformed 12 professional players over the course of a 10,000-hand study — and as The Verge put it, “ bluffs better than any human.”

This is exciting when considered purely from an AI perspective. But for poker players, it casts serious doubt on what amateur competition will look like moving forward. There is every reason to suspect at this point that apps and online poker programs will eventually adopt AI systems that can mimic the success of Pluribus. Even more troubling is the potential for other human competitors to put such AI systems to use to gain unfair advantages. There will be attempts to regulate all of this, and it’s not in poker sites’ or apps’ interest to simply dominate human competition. But in various ways the landscape will likely become more difficult and less fair for ordinary, amateur players.

As mentioned above though, the effect of advancing technology on the world of poker will have some positive aspects as well. The positives have less to do with AI specifically, but instead tie back into some of the topics I discussed in the post titled “Discussing The Future Of Sports” way back in 2017.

In that post, I cited numerous predictions about how technology is poised to alter the sports landscape. And some of these concerned improved viewing options, such as interactive, holographic replays, VR-simulated game attendance, and even fan-sourced play calling applications. For the most part, we’re still waiting on these developments to occur in a meaningful, widespread manner. But if and when they do, they could make the experience of watching poker more engaging than ever before.

This might mean opportunities to project entire tables of professional players as holograms in real time. Viewers could feel as if they’re participating in tournaments, and could rotate the table to look at players’ hands and observe their strategies. As a simpler version of this same possibility we could also see VR viewing options allowing players to take the place of different players around a table. And as for the play-calling concept, it’s possible — though perhaps not entirely likely — that we’ll see fan representation at tournaments. Imagine for example a table filled with professional players, with one seat dedicated to fans, who could digitally determine decisions by majority input in real time.

There will certainly be additional tech-related changes in the poker world as well. VR is likely to revolutionize online tournaments in time for instance, regardless of what happens with AI. Video poker in live casinos is likely to be replaced in time by more immersive experiences in which players compete against digital renderings of pros, other people, or even invented characters. Augmented reality projections of cards and chips could become the norm for basic poker apps in a matter of three to five years.

Where overarching, transformative changes are concerned though, the positives and negatives noted above are likely to represent the main consequences of advancing technology in poker. It will be fascinating to see how it all unfolds.

Originally published at http://frankdiana.net on April 7, 2021.

TCS Executive focused on the rapid evolution of society and business. Fascinated by the view of the world in the next decade and beyond https://frankdiana.net/

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