First human vs machine poker champs kicks off

By Deborah Jones

Vancouver, Canada - Two top poker players will pit their wiles and math ability against a computer on Monday, in a two-day match scientists say is the world's first man-machine poker championship.

The program, called Polaris, will play four games of Texas Hold Em. Its opponents are Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, gamblers from Los Angeles who are among the top players in the global high-stakes cash poker circuit.

The competition will begin on Monday and end late on Tuesday, and the humans will receive $5 000 (about R40 000) for each match they win against Polaris.

But the cash is modest, noted Eslami, who said he agreed to come to this western Canadian city to compete because he's interested in artificial intelligence.

"I'm interested in being at the cusp of this wave, it's like history unfolding. It's like watching the first launch of the space shuttle," Eslami told AFP. "This is the beginning of the next revolution in computers, computers that can become human."

The man-machine poker game is billed as one highlight at the annual global conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. More than 1 000 scientists from universities and corporations pre-registered for the event in this western Canadian city, said an organiser.

"The poker is in some ways an entertaining event, but it's also a very scientific event," said Michael Bowling, the leader of the computer science team that developed Polaris at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

"The technology is more than about poker - poker is a test for evaluating," said Bowling, 31. "Building a machine with human intelligence creates an intellectual challenge."

Scientists have now developed computers that can beat humans at chess, checkers and backgammon. But if Polaris wins the essentially psychological game of poker - with its inherent bluffing, emotions, deliberate deception and elements of chance as well as mathematics - Bowling said it will be a major milestone for the progress of Artificial Intelligence.

He compared the poker competition to the 1997 chess match between Garry Kimovich Kasparov and an IBM computer Deep Blue.

Deep Blue won that match its conquest of the legendary Russian world chess champion made global headlines - and changed how humans regard computers.

Eslami and Laak are technologically savvy as well as professional gamblers. Laak is an engineer by training, and Eslami is a business graduate who worked as a gaming and computer consultant before turning to professional poker.

Eslami, 30, said the point of the Polaris-human event is more than a poker match - it helps further AI technology that humans can use in many ways.

"If they can solve the problem the applications are huge for human kind," he said. "If computers can understand human emotion they can interact with us more."

Eslami said possible long-term examples of AI use might be for smart automobile computers that can sense the emotions of drivers and take measures to avoid dangerous situations, a computerised telephone system that can pass a frustrated caller directly to a human operator, and military strategy in which computers would help understand the emotions of opponents.

"But these are large abstractions from what they're doing here," said Eslami, pointing to the scientists as the experts.

Darse Billings, the lead architect of the Polaris team, said applications of a computer capable of playing poker are in the future.

"We don't really think in terms of applications, we're doing pure research," said Billings, 45, a one-time chess master who after completing a masters degree in computer science spent several years as a professional poker player.

It was Billings, who later obtained a computer science PhD from the University of Alberta - who suggested using poker to research artificial intelligence.

"It's a game of hidden information ... The challenge is trying to get inside (the opponents) head," he said.

"Philosophically, there's nothing that a human can do that a computer can't do," said Billings, 45. "The whole world is rife with uncertainty, and we want computers to bridge that gap." - Sapa-AFP


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