Poker-Playing AIs Today, Skynet Tomorrow

Making computers unbeatable at Texas Hold ’em could lead to big breakthroughs in artificial intelligence

3 min read
poker chips and cards
Photo: Getty Images

Life is not a game. But there are similarities. That’s why it’s worthwhile to invent artificial-intelligence algorithms that can win games. One such AI has now finally solved one of the simplest versions of poker. It’s a crucial first step on a potentially long road toward beating human poker champions in more complex versions of the games. This isn’t just about bragging rights: Poker playing can train computer algorithms to tackle the complexities of real-world challenges in security and medicine, where the available information is rarely perfect or complete.

The many possibilities for deception in poker means there are a huge number of possible plays, even in a limited version with just two players. Computers have solved simpler games such as Connect Four and checkers by figuring out the perfect, unbeatable strategy for each move starting from the beginning of each game. But analyzing all the possible plays in even the simplest poker game is a far greater challenge because each player has hidden cards—information hidden from the opponent. In that sense, poker is an “imperfect-information game,” similar to real-world scenarios with various degrees of uncertainty.

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Will AI Steal Submarines’ Stealth?

Better detection will make the oceans transparent—and perhaps doom mutually assured destruction

11 min read
A photo of a submarine in the water under a partly cloudy sky.

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Virginia cruises through the Mediterranean in 2010. Back then, it could effectively disappear just by diving.

U.S. Navy

Submarines are valued primarily for their ability to hide. The assurance that submarines would likely survive the first missile strike in a nuclear war and thus be able to respond by launching missiles in a second strike is key to the strategy of deterrence known as mutually assured destruction. Any new technology that might render the oceans effectively transparent, making it trivial to spot lurking submarines, could thus undermine the peace of the world. For nearly a century, naval engineers have striven to develop ever-faster, ever-quieter submarines. But they have worked just as hard at advancing a wide array of radar, sonar, and other technologies designed to detect, target, and eliminate enemy submarines.

The balance seemed to turn with the emergence of nuclear-powered submarines in the early 1960s. In a 2015 study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, Bryan Clark, a naval specialist now at the Hudson Institute, noted that the ability of these boats to remain submerged for long periods of time made them “nearly impossible to find with radar and active sonar.” But even these stealthy submarines produce subtle, very-low-frequency noises that can be picked up from far away by networks of acoustic hydrophone arrays mounted to the seafloor.

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