What Now for Humans As Computers Get the Upper Hand At Sport

What Now for Humans As Computers Get the Upper Hand At Sport

In the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Ryker meets Data the android for the first time.

In his characteristically straightforward manner, Data tells him “I am superior to you in many ways.” It’s true – Data can perform complex calculations in a fraction of a second, he can instantly recall any fact or observation to which he has been exposed, he has speed, strength and stamina far superior to any human – and he also plays a mean game of poker.

Keep in mind that Data was created in the mid 1980s, a time when the Commodore 64 and Atari ST were the height of technological sophistication. Yet as is so often the case, when we look back 30 years on, the scriptwriters got more right than they got wrong about where computer technology was heading.

AI putting us in our place

AI putting us in our place

Be careful what you wish for – you might just get it. If we didn’t want to create artificial intelligence that could “think” faster than us, there would be no point creating it. Consider the machinery of the 2nd industrial revolution – we created it to carry out tasks on a larger and faster scale than human laborers could hope to achieve. Today, we don’t think twice about the fact that a mechanical digger can shift 40 cubic yards of earth in an hour – a task that would take a man with a shovel 40 working days.

AI is used to shovel data in the same way, examining and cross referencing more historical data in a fraction of a second than a human brain could get through in a week. This enables it to make faster and more accurate decisions in areas like medical diagnoses and insurance claims settlements. It’s the same principle as the digger. But like Data, modern AI thinks about all sorts of other things too.

From Deep Blue to Stockfish

Deep Blue is the famous chess playing computer from IBM that was the first to take on the humans and win in matchplay conditions. That was in 1995, and today’s chess computers like Stockfish are far superior to Deep Blue. In fact, it has been more than 15 years since a human has beaten a computer at chess, and it will never happen again.

Even Stockfish cannot think ahead indefinitely, but it can calculate all possible moves up to about 80 moves ahead. A human grandmaster might be able to plan 10 to 14 moves ahead. It’s just another variation on those shovelfuls of earth.

Hustled by a computer?

Hustled by a computer

So much for chess – but surely poker is a different matter. Multiple players, hole cards, community cards, rounds of betting – it makes the chess board look almost simple. Yet the latest poker playing computer, Pluribus, is equal to it. Up against five top poker pros with seven-figure WSOP winning under their belts, Pluribus won an average $480 from its human competitors for every 100 hands. The performance was right up there with the best in the world.

The implications for casual players are sobering. Suddenly, finding an online poker site that is trustworthy is about more than checking it is licensed and so on. You also need reassurance that it only allows human players in through its virtual doors.

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