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Can machines gamble?

May 5, 2011

Of course computers play games of chance: poker, cribbage, monopoly, etc. In a game of chance, a player’s chances of winning depend in part on a random event – typically drawing a card or tossing dice. Skill in a game of chance is a player’s ability to (usually) take the optimum benefit out of the random card draw or dice throw.

Not all games of chance are gambling games. In cribbage, a game of chance, the players are in it to the end. But in poker a player can fold. In backgammon a player can double, or accept or decline his opponent’s double. Such players are assessing a current position and making a guess about which (now) unknown events might happen next.

Suppose a player had perfect knowledge of the probability that this or that event – rolling double 6’s, drawing an ace – would or would not happen; and suppose he had a perfect algorithm for using this knowledge to make his next move – fold (or not) in poker; accept (or decline) his opponent’s double in backgammon; then such a player would not be gambling. He would be acting on objective odds.

Computers may not have perfect knowledge of probabilities; they may not have perfect algorithms. But whatever they have is often pretty darn good. Human players, on the whole, proceed by intuition and hunches, which may be refined and honed over time. Humans tend to think that their position “looks good” (or bad). Still, such human players, when they stick to their hunches and intuitions, are not gambling either, for they are acting on odds as they see them.

What is gambling, then? If a person knows – or has a hunch – that a certain outcome is very unlikely – one in a hundred – and acts as if that outcome will not occur, he isn’t really gambling. He would be gambling if he acted on the one-in-a-hundred outcome. He would be acting on a hope that the one-in-a-hundred outcome will happen.

What if the odds aren’t clear? Suppose a position looks not so good but not a clear loser. It is gambling if the player doesn’t fold or accepts his opponent’s double. He is acting on hope. And I think that’s what gambling is: acting on hope that is not supported by a clear perception of objective odds – and may be a hope that runs agains what perception of odds one has. Computers don’t act on hope. Maybe perfectly rational human players don’t act on hope either; in which case perfectly rational human players don’t gamble either.


From → Philosophy

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