Tuomas Sandholm, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, is not a poker player—or much of a poker fan, in fact—but he is fascinated by the game for much the same reason as the great game theorist John von Neumann before him. Von Neumann, who died in 1957, viewed poker as the perfect model for human decision making, for finding the balance between skill and chance that accompanies our every choice. He saw poker as the ultimate strategic challenge, combining as it does not just the mathematical elements of a game like chess but the uniquely human, psychological angles that are more difficult to model precisely—a view shared years later by Sandholm in his research with artificial intelligence.
“Poker is the main benchmark and challenge program for games of imperfect information,” Sandholm told me on a warm spring afternoon in 2018, when we met in his offices in Pittsburgh. The game, it turns out, has become the gold standard for developing artificial intelligence.
Tall and thin, with wire-frame glasses and neat brow hair framing a friendly face, Sandholm is behind the creation of three computer programs designed to test their mettle against human poker players: Claudico, Libratus, and most recently, Pluribus. (When we met, Libratus was still a toddler and Pluribus didn’t yet exist.) The goal isn’t to solve poker, as such, but to create algorithms whose decision making prowess in poker’s world of imperfect information and stochastic situations—situations that are randomly determined and unable to be predicted—can then be applied to other stochastic realms, like the military, business, government, cybersecurity, even health care.
While the first program, Claudico, was summarily beaten by human poker players—“one broke-ass robot,” an observer called it—Libratus has triumphed in a series of one-on-one, or heads-up, matches against some of the best online players in the United States.
Libratus relies on three main modules. The first involves a basic blueprint strategy for the whole game, allowing it to reach a much faster equilibrium than its predecessor. It includes an algorithm called the Monte Carlo Counterfactual Regret Minimization, which evaluates all future actions to figure out which one would cause the least amount of regret. Regret, of course, is a human emotion. Regret for a computer simply means realizing that an action that wasn’t chosen would have yielded a better outcome than one that was. “Intuitively, regret represents how much the AI regrets having not chosen that action in the past,” says Sandholm. The higher the regret, the higher the chance of choosing that action next time.
It’s a useful way of thinking—but one that is incredibly difficult for the human mind to implement. We are notoriously bad at anticipating our future emotions. How much will we regret doing something? How much will we regret not doing something else? For us, it’s an emotionally laden calculus, and we typically fail to apply it in quite the right way. For a computer, it’s all about the computation of values. What does it regret not doing the most, the thing that would have yielded the highest possible expected value?
The second module is a sub-game solver that takes into account the mistakes the opponent has made so far and accounts for every hand she could possibly have. And finally, there is a self-improver. This is the area where data and machine learning come into play. It’s dangerous to try to exploit your opponent—it opens you up to the risk that you’ll get exploited right back, especially if you’re a computer program and your opponent is human. So instead of attempting to do that, the self-improver lets the opponent’s actions inform the areas where the program should focus. “That lets the opponent’s actions tell us where [they] think they’ve found holes in our strategy,” Sandholm explained. This allows the algorithm to develop a blueprint strategy to patch those holes.
It’s a very human-like adaptation, if you think about it. I’m not going to try to outmaneuver you head on. Instead, I’m going to see how you’re trying to outmaneuver me and respond accordingly. Sun-Tzu would surely approve. Watch how you’re perceived, not how you perceive yourself—because in the end, you’re playing against those who are doing the perceiving, and their opinion, right or not, is the only one that matters when you craft your strategy. Overnight, the algorithm patches up its overall approach according to the resulting analysis.
There’s one final thing Libratus is able to do: play in situations with unknown probabilities. There’s a concept in game theory known as the trembling hand: There are branches of the game tree that, under an optimal strategy, one should theoretically never get to; but with some probability, your all-too-human opponent’s hand trembles, they take a wrong action, and you’re suddenly in a totally unmapped part of the game. Before, that would spell disaster for the computer: An unmapped part of the tree means the program no longer knows how to respond. Now, there’s a contingency plan.
Of course, no algorithm is perfect. When Libratus is playing poker, it’s essentially working in a zero-sum environment. It wins, the opponent loses. The opponent wins, it loses. But while some real-life interactions really are zero-sum—cyber warfare comes to mind—many others are not nearly as straightforward: My win does not necessarily mean your loss. The pie is not fixed, and our interactions may be more positive-sum than not.
What’s more, real-life applications have to contend with something that a poker algorithm does not: the weights that are assigned to different elements of a decision. In poker, this is a simple value-maximizing process. But what is value in the human realm? Sandholm had to contend with this before, when he helped craft the world’s first kidney exchange. Do you want to be more efficient, giving the maximum number of kidneys as quickly as possible—or more fair, which may come at a cost to efficiency? Do you want as many lives as possible saved—or do some take priority at the cost of reaching more? Is there a preference for the length of the wait until a transplant? Do kids get preference? And on and on. It’s essential, Sandholm says, to separate means and the ends. To figure out the ends, a human has to decide what the goal is.
“The world will ultimately become a lot safer with the help of algorithms like Libratus,” Sandholm told me. I wasn’t sure what he meant. The last thing that most people would do is call poker, with its competition, its winners and losers, its quest to gain the maximum edge over your opponent, a haven of safety.
“Logic is good, and the AI is much better at strategic reasoning than humans can ever be,” he explained. “It’s taking out irrationality, emotionality. And it’s fairer. If you have an AI on your side, it can lift non-experts to the level of experts. Naïve negotiators will suddenly have a better weapon. We can start to close off the digital divide.”
It was an optimistic note to end on—a zero-sum, competitive game yielding a more ultimately fair and rational world.
I wanted to learn more, to see if it was really possible that mathematics and algorithms could ultimately be the future of more human, more psychological interactions. And so, later that day, I accompanied Nick Nystrom, the chief scientist of the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center—the place that runs all of Sandholm’s poker-AI programs—to the actual processing center that make undertakings like Libratus possible.
A half-hour drive found us in a parking lot by a large glass building. I’d expected something more futuristic, not the same square, corporate glass squares I’ve seen countless times before. The inside, however, was more promising. First the security checkpoint. Then the ride in the elevator — down, not up, to roughly three stories below ground, where we found ourselves in a maze of corridors with card readers at every juncture to make sure you don’t slip through undetected. A red-lit panel formed the final barrier, leading to a small sliver of space between two sets of doors. I could hear a loud hum coming from the far side.
“Let me tell you what you’re going to see before we walk in,” Nystrom told me. “Once we get inside, it will be too loud to hear.”
I was about to witness the heart of the supercomputing center: 27 large containers, in neat rows, each housing multiple processors with speeds and abilities too great for my mind to wrap around. Inside, the temperature is by turns arctic and tropic, so-called “cold” rows alternating with “hot”—fans operate around the clock to cool the processors as they churn through millions of giga, mega, tera, peta and other ever-increasing scales of data bytes. In the cool rows, robotic-looking lights blink green and blue in orderly progression. In the hot rows, a jumble of multicolored wires crisscrosses in tangled skeins.
In the corners stood machines that had outlived their heyday. There was Sherlock, an old Cray model, that warmed my heart. There was a sad nameless computer, whose anonymity was partially compensated for by the Warhol soup cans adorning its cage (an homage to Warhol’s Pittsburghian origins).
And where does Libratus live, I asked? Which of these computers is Bridges, the computer that runs the AI Sandholm and I had been discussing?
Bridges, it turned out, isn’t a single computer. It’s a system with processing power beyond comprehension. It takes over two and a half petabytes to run Libratus. A single petabyte is a million gigabytes: You could watch over 13 years of HD video, store 10 billion photos, catalog the contents of the entire Library of Congress word for word. That’s a whole lot of computing power. And that’s only to succeed at heads-up poker, in limited circumstances.
Yet despite the breathtaking computing power at its disposal, Libratus is still severely limited. Yes, it beat its opponents where Claudico failed. But the poker professionals weren’t allowed to use many of the tools of their trade, including the opponent analysis software that they depend on in actual online games. And humans tire. Libratus can churn for a two-week marathon, where the human mind falters.
But there’s still much it can’t do: play more opponents, play live, or win every time. There’s more humanity in poker than Libratus has yet conquered. “There’s this belief that it’s all about statistics and correlations. And we actually don’t believe that,” Nystrom explained as we left Bridges behind. “Once in a while correlations are good, but in general, they can also be really misleading.”
Two years later, the Sandholm lab will produce Pluribus. Pluribus will be able to play against five players—and will run on a single computer. Much of the human edge will have evaporated in a short, very short time. The algorithms have improved, as have the computers. AI, it seems, has gained by leaps and bounds.
So does that mean that, ultimately, the algorithmic can indeed beat out the human, that computation can untangle the web of human interaction by discerning “the little tactics of deception, of asking yourself what is the other man going to think I mean to do,” as von Neumann put it?
Long before I’d spoken to Sandholm, I’d met Kevin Slavin, a polymath of sorts whose past careers have including founding a game design company and an interactive art space and launching the Playful Systems group at MIT’s Media Lab. Slavin has a decidedly different view from the creators of Pluribus. “On the one hand, [von Neumann] was a genius,” Kevin Slavin reflects. “But the presumptuousness of it.”
Slavin is firmly on the side of the gambler, who recognizes uncertainty for what it is and thus is able to take calculated risks when necessary, all the while tampering confidence at the outcome. The most you can do is put yourself in the path of luck—but to think you can guess with certainty the actual outcome is a presumptuousness the true poker player foregoes. For Slavin, the wonder of computers is “That they can generate this fabulous, complex randomness.” His opinion of the algorithmic assaults on chance? “This is their moment,” he said. “But it’s the exact opposite of what’s really beautiful about a computer, which is that it can do something that’s actually unpredictable. That, to me, is the magic.”
Will they actually succeed in making the unpredictable predictable, though? That’s what I want to know. Because everything I’ve seen tells me that absolute success is impossible. The deck is not rigged.
“It’s an unbelievable amount of work to get there. What do you get at the end? Let’s say they’re successful. Then we live in a world where there’s no God, agency, or luck,” Slavin responded.
“I don’t want to live there,’’ he added “I just don’t want to live there.”
Luckily, it seems that for now, he won’t have to. There are more things in life than are yet written in the algorithms. We have no reliable lie detection software—whether in the face, the skin, or the brain. In a recent test of bluffing in poker, computer face recognition failed miserably. We can get at discomfort, but we can’t get at the reasons for that discomfort: lying, fatigue, stress—they all look much the same. And humans, of course, can also mimic stress where none exists, complicating the picture even further.
Pluribus may turn out to be powerful, but von Neumann’s challenge still stands: The true nature of games, the most human of the human, remains to be conquered.
MARIA KONNIKOVA Maria Konnikova is the author, most recently, of “The Biggest Bluff.” She is a regularly contributing writer for The New Yorker, the author of two previous New York Times best-sellers, and a professional poker player. Learn More