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Why Facebook’s Card Shark Poker Bot Won’t Ruin the Game—Data Sheet

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To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies¹, it's sad to see another tired A.I. bot lay down its hand and quit the holy game of poker.

Chess, checkers, Go, now poker? Yes, it's true. A team of artificial intelligence researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Facebook have developed a poker-playing A.I. bot dubbed Pluribus that came out well ahead of some of the top human players in the world after 10,000 hands. Pluribus first taught itself to play in standard machine learning fashion, then went on to prove its worth in six-player, no-limit Texas Hold'em.

Just like a good human player, Pluribus occasionally will bluff but it wins despite not studying its opponents' tendencies to alter its strategy, as most human players would. The old poker saw that you "play the man, not the cards," or its 2019 incarnation "play the people, not the cards," may have to be reexamined. "At the end of the day, it was making quite a bit of money playing against elite human pros. I think that suggests the cliche is, at least in part, wrong," researcher Noam Brown wrote in an interesting online conversation he conducted in the comment section of Hacker News.

In some ways, it's not a surprise that a mathematically ruthless and unflappable machine can win at poker given the other fields of play already conquered by the bots. But there were a couple of noticeable departures from the usual "A.I. bites man" story in the case of Pluribus. For one, Pluribus trained on a the equivalent of a modest server computer, using about $150 worth of cloud computing resources. Prior efforts have required staggeringly more power. Google's DeepMind that conquered Go in 2016 needed 1,200 CPUs and 176 GPUs, for example.

The second departure brought to mind the line above from The Thomas Crown Affair (1999 version, of course). That's the decision by the team behind Pluribus not to put it online to challenge all comers or release its code for poker experts to study. "At the end of the day, this is about advancing A.I., not about making a poker bot," Brown noted. Sounds like we'll have to keep making our own decisions about knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. Bet Pluribus doesn't know when to run away, though.

The Data Sheet crew along with the rest of the Fortune tech team is off to Colorado next week for our annual Brainstorm Tech conference, as we may have mentioned here a few times. Stand by for fresh reporting on the going's on there. And maybe, in some downtime, we'll get in a few hands of Texas Hold'em.

(¹I'm well aware that Thomas Crown is misquoting Leonard Cohen, but I think it's kind of pithier than the original.)

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman



All-in. Speaking of Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup Argo AI, which also has ties to the famed university, is getting a $2.6 billion infusion from Volkswagen. The investment, which values Argo at $7 billion, follows major backing for the startup from Ford in 2017. Argo will also take over Volkswagen’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving team in Munich. Much smaller startup Luminar, which makes laser sensors for self-driving cars, raised a mere $100 million, as it debuted a new Lidar system called Iris that will cost less than $1,000.

Drawing dead. In his regrettable gathering of right-wing online personalities on Thursday, President Trump mentioned that he’d be seeking to punish the big Internet companies in the future. Later in the evening, he took to Twitter to attack Facebook’s Libra digital currency. And every other cryptocurrency, apparently. “I am not a fan of Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies, which are not money, and whose value is highly volatile and based on thin air,” Trump wrote.

Live one. Have trouble buying your double skinny, non-fat, decaf latte yesterday? Retail payments processor Stripe was offline for about two hours, frustrating customers of many a small business.

Lock up my seat. In good news for journalists everywhere, Google is redesigning what appears under the “news” tab on its search results pages. Using a card format instead of a list, the headlines of stories and names of publishers get bigger play.

Big slick. If you’re keeping score at home, count it big tech company: 1 and popular startup: 0. Well, that’s not exactly right. But Microsoft says its Teams group messaging app has over 13 million daily active users versus 10 million for scrappy upstart Slack when it last disclosed a number.

Big blind. It seems like Tim Cook has been talking about the potential of India to give iPhone sales a boost since forever. But Apple is really going for it now, as the company is about to start selling phones made in the country domestically for the first time. That will reduce the price to consumers by avoiding taxes applied to imported smartphones


A few longer reads that I came across this week that may be appealing for your weekend reading pleasure:

The Fight for the Future of YouTube (The New Yorker)
The video giant’s recent travails underscore a basic question: How “neutral” should social-media platforms try to be?

The Story McKinsey Didn’t Want Written (Institutional Investor)
Tied to the global consulting giant is a massive investment fund. Based on its reaction to this story, McKinsey likely doesn’t want you reading much about it.

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane (The Atlantic)
Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.

Cover Story: How Idris Elba Became the Coolest Man in Hollywood (Vanity Fair)
From prestige TV to tentpole franchises to the Coachella DJ tent, the British actor is a poster boy for 21st-century fame: multidisciplinary, omnipresent, engaging. So what does Idris Elba want to do next? And what do we want from him?


I have to say I love some of the online security advice that’s been coming out of Microsoft lately. Thank you, Microsoft, for blasting the useless (and actually counterproductive) security policy of forcing users to change their password every 90 days. Now, Alex Weinert on Microsoft’s security team is out with another great essay, provocatively titled “Your Pa$$word doesn’t matter.” As he explains:

Every week I have at least one conversation with a security decision maker explaining why a lot of the hyperbole about passwords – “never use a password that has ever been seen in a breach,” “use really long passwords”, “passphrases-will-save-us”, and so on – is inconsistent with our research and with the reality our team sees as we defend against 100s of millions of password-based attacks every day. Focusing on password rules, rather than things that can really help – like multi-factor authentication (MFA), or great threat detection – is just a distraction. Because here’s the thing: When it comes to composition and length, your password (mostly) doesn’t matter.

To understand why, let’s look at what the major attacks on passwords are and how the password itself factors into the equation for an attacker. Remember that all your attacker cares about is stealing passwords so they, or others, can access accounts. That’s a key difference between hypothetical and practical security – your attacker will only do really wacky, creative stuff you hear about at conferences (or wherever) when there’s no easier way and the target of the attack justifies the extra effort.


YouTube Adds More Pay Features to Its Free Video Services By Danielle Abril

Accenture Names a New CEO: Julie Sweet By Alan Murray

Alphabet’s Latest Data Grab: Google Home Records Far More Sound Than Users Realize, Report Says By Xavier Harding

Survey Says: Corporate Culture Is Worth More Than a Big Salary By Natalie Rocha

Attendee of President Trump’s Social Media Complaint Fest Speaks Out By Alyssa Newcomb

Amazon Prime Subscription Growth Slows Ahead of Prime Day 2019 By Don Reisinger

Virgin Galactic’s CEO: What Space Tourism Will Really Be Like By Erik Sherman


Apple has almost done it. This week’s updates to the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air have definitely got me in an upgrading mood. The reviews are great, the price of storage is finally reasonable, but…there’s still that damnable keyboard. I definitely need a Steve Jobsian “one more thing” at the next Apple event. Pretty please.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.