Coffee in Space: A Bold Cup of Innovation
“We are at a point in history where a proper attention to space,” wrote legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, “may be absolutely crucial in bringing the world together.”
Mead also opined about the need to rid space travel of sexism in her little-known column in Redbook during the 1960s and 1970s, but this line of hers is often quoted by professional and amateur space geeks alike to describe the sense of technological possibility and international fellowship space travel has symbolized.
Today that spirit of cooperation and innovation has a new symbol: a cup of coffee. Or, to be more exact, a cup of really good espresso—the only part of home that Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano said in 2013 that he really missed during his stay on the International Space Station. Luckily for Luca and his successors on the ISS—including fellow Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who is currently in space—engineers at aerospace firm Argotec and prominent coffee company Lavazza back in Torino were already on the case.
In partnership with ASI, the Italian space agency, Argotec and Lavazza have produced ISSpresso (get it?), a capsule-based machine that promises to deliver “a perfect espresso” in the weightless environment of space. Microgravity complicates literally every action astronauts perform in space, and liquids are particularly tricky to deal with up there. With this new appliance, however, they can insert a pouch of water, add a capsule of espresso, press “brew,” and voila! Caffeinated bliss.
ISSpresso has been in the works for several years, and on Tuesday, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule successfully launched carrying the machine, which is about the size of a microwave and built to withstand vibration and very high pressure. It’s scheduled to be delivered Friday to Cristoforetti and her compatriots aboard the ISS. Cristoforetti tweeted the launch (with the hashtag #HomeDeliveryFromPlanetEarth), “We watched live! Amazing to thing that in 3 days #Dragon will be knocking on our door.”
This development is certainly a groundbreaking, though upon first glance, ISSpresso might also bring to mind the (in)famous episode of how Americans and Russians supposedly addressed the need for writing implements in space. (This apocryphal tale, already legendary but further popularized by an episode of The West Wing, goes something like: We spent millions developing a pen that would work in microgravity; they used a pencil.) But ISSpresso is different, because enjoying a good cup of coffee is a ritual that can easily be an individual and collective reminder of the comforts of home. As a social binding agent, the warm caffeinated stuff also helps us spin odd friendships from the disparate threads of random conversation around the coffeepot—not to mention keeps us buzzing and alert to new ideas. Analogically speaking, the elements that symbolize the best of space travel—cross-cutting partnership and collaboration, problem-solving, relationship-building, and the energy and enthusiasm to push ourselves further (whether that means finishing inventory or probing the frontiers of human knowledge and experience)—match up with the energy and social exchange generated by enjoying coffees together.
Such an analogy between space travel and the perfect cup of coffee as vehicles for technological innovation and friendship may seem like a stretch to some, but perhaps not to Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, founders of Compass Coffee, a roastery and shop in Washington, D.C. Haft and Suarez became friends during college and training at Camp Lejeune before both deployed to Afghanistan. As Marines, they drank military coffee that was “disgusting, but it has the caffeine and it keeps you awake,” as Haft told the Washington Post in September 2014. When they were back stateside, they started learning as much as they possibly could about coffee-roasting technology and decided to write an e-book (the first step on the path to opening their now-thriving business) unsurprisingly titled Perfect Coffee at Home.
Like the Compass founders, Lavazza agrees that coffee can make improbable things possible. “Italian coffee is a beverage without borders,” says vice president Giuseppe Lavazza in a press release. The company’s website says that it expressly intends its innovative gadget to brew up social exchange along with espresso:
The “corner café” on the ISS will be the hub for socialising on board the Station, a sort of social network in space, a venue for getting together, chatting and relaxing: an aspect that should not be ignored in missions that keep the astronauts away from home for many months in a very challenging environment.
David Avino, Argotec’s managing director, agrees. “Everybody can join,” he told NPR’s food blog the Salt. “And this will be a great occasion, you know, to all meet together and have a coffee all together on the station.”
The collaborative work necessary on the ground to put ISSpresso in orbit is exciting in and of itself—imagine if Starbucks and Boeing had done such a thing in tandem with NASA. Putting espresso in space will add some extra kick to the idea that astronauts boldly go where few (at this point) have gone before. In the meantime, bringing astronauts from different countries to a well-heeled coffee klatch may not have been what Margaret Mead had in mind, but it is indeed a way of bringing the world together, one cup (or more likely, two or three) at a time.
Netizen Report: Will Tech Companies Cave to the Kremlin’s Data Demands?
The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Mahsa Alimardani, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Sergey Kozlovsky, Hae-in Lim, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week’s report begins in Russia, where state media outlet RBC reported last week that U.S. companies including eBay and Google had begun storing Russian user data on servers located in Russian territory.
Google called the reports “inaccurate” but has said nothing more about the claims. Meanwhile, eBay Russia representative Vladimir Dolgov confirmed the reports and explained that the company has been meeting with Russian regulatory authorities in an effort to come into full compliance with data localization legislation passed last July. The law requires Internet companies to store Russian users’ data in Russia, presumably with the goal of sustaining stronger state control over Internet users and their data. It goes into effect on Sept. 1, 2015.
The policy would mark a big shift for users, creating new vulnerabilities when it comes to personal data sent to and stored using services based outside of the country. For example, right now if Russian authorities wish to access Google user data, they must present a court order to the United States Department of Justice, which will determine its legitimacy. Google’s Law Enforcement guidelines explain that if the order satisfies U.S. law and Google’s policies, it will be fulfilled—but if not, the user's data will remain undisclosed. The same would be true for a host of other U.S. companies that do business in Russia. But if outside companies should comply with the new policy, there would be a much lower threshold for Russian authorities to obtain user data.
Online speech under fire in Malaysia
Malaysia’s Parliament passed new amendments to the country’s Sedition Act of 1948, which has been used to jail critics, journalists, academics, and opposition politicians over the past year. The amendments allow the Sessions Court to issue an order to remove seditious publications made by electronic means and increases jail terms for acts of sedition. The amendments mark a shift away from the government’s promise during 2012 elections that it would repeal the Sedition Act, which specifically targets discourse seen as subversive to the state.
Iran is censoring Global Voices (sort of)
Last time we checked, GlobalVoicesOnline.org was not blocked inside Iran. We checked again last week, and the redirect page came up. But there is an easy fix for this—by simply replacing the regular “http” with “https,” users in Iran can get around the block. So now we know: Iran is conducting HTTP host-based blocking of the Global Voices website, likely along with many others. But unlike major sites like Facebook, which Iran blocks using more advanced methods, a simple “s” can solve the problem.
Kiwi media companies say virtual private networks violate copyright
Internet service providers in New Zealand are facing legal challenges from local media companies, including SKY, Lightbox, MediaWorks, and TVNZ, that claim that the ISPs are violating copyright by offering global virtual private network services. VPNs enable New Zealanders to circumvent geoblocks of various kinds, including those placed on entertainment content under copyright. TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick says the claims in the suit are a far cry from standard interpretations of copyright and argues that ISPs are simply offering access to the entire global Internet.
Twitter conducts massive sweep on accounts associated with ISIS
Twitter’s violations department suspended approximately 10,000 ISIS-linked accounts for “tweeting violent threats,” according to a Twitter representative, marking what may be the single biggest suspension of accounts linked to the violent extremist group. These numbers cannot be independently verified because this form of account data is not accessible to the public.
Users challenge Facebook on privacy violations, facial recognition sneakiness
Facebook is facing a class-action lawsuit filed by 25,000 Austrian users for breaching EU privacy law and for the company’s involvement with the U.S. National Security Agency. An additional 55,000 users have registered to join the procedures at a later stage, according to the Guardian.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Facebook has been accused of violating user privacy because of its use of facial recognition technology that scans photos and suggests Facebook friends its users may want to tag. The suit alleges that the acquisition of this data violates the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, which makes it unlawful to collect biometric data without providing written notice to the subject and obtaining his or her written release.
- “Their Eyes on Me: Stories of Surveillance in Morocco”—Privacy International
EU Brings Antitrust Charges Against Google Related to Android and Search
The European Parliament has been vocally pushing for an investigation into Google’s alleged anticompetitive strategies since November. And on Wednesday, Margrethe Vestager, the European Union competition commissioner, announced in Brussels that such an inquiry is moving forward and that Google is being formally accused (through what’s called a “statement of objections”) of abusing its power in its ubiquitous services like Internet search and Android.
The charges are centered mainly on digital shopping for now, but they could evolve to include other types of Web services as the investigation progresses. As the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times report, the concern is that because of its control over information services like search, Google is able to subtly but forcefully direct users to its own offerings ahead of others, even when the competitors provide better-quality services that users end up choosing more often. Multiple sites, including Yelp, have complained about this.
“I’m concerned that Google has artificially boosted its presence in the comparison shopping market with the result that consumers do not see what’s relevant for them,” Vestager said.
The investigation could lead to fines or other legal action against Google. But the company has been able to dodge similar consequences before. The Federal Trade Commission conducted an antitrust investigation of Google that concluded in 2013 without any legal ramifications. In March the Wall Street Journal published an internal FTC report, which supported the idea that Google was in violation and needed to be penalized.
As Ars Technica points out, Vestager’s goal seems to be setting an example of legality, not interfering in commerce. She said, “We’re not here to create a market, to pick winners, we’re here to enforce EU competition law.” The results of this probe could shape the standards other Internet companies are held to in the future.
Google will have 10 weeks to respond and defend itself in a hearing. In some initial statements on the Google Europe blog, senior vice president of search Amit Singhal wrote, continuing, “While Google may be the most used search engine, people can now find and access information in numerous different ways—and allegations of harm, for consumers and competitors, have proved to be wide [off] the mark.”
This Fantastic Documentary Lays Out Everything About Online Privacy
Interactive media can still sometimes feel like a Choose Your Own Adventure book: fun and novel, but also kind of contrived and limited. But Do Not Track, a docu-series about data privacy that launched Tuesday, uses audience participation in a great way. As the series goes through different aspects of online data collection, it uses the examples of your choice to show how much data sharing is going on behind the scenes online, and how easy it is to develop profiles about Web users.
For instance, the movie analyzes your IP address and browser connection to tell you what country you're currently in, what the weather is in your area, what time of day it is, and what type of computer you’re on (Mac or PC). It’s an effective moment that shows just how personal the documentary is going to be.
“Each viewer is going to have a different experience as they watch it,” Brett Gaylor, the creator and director, told the Guardian. “Privacy is a very complex issue and it can be abstract for people so we wanted to explore ways that we could have that hit home—literally.”
Beyond the interactive aspects, the documentary shows experts and activists talking about how the Web works and debating what users’ rights should be when they share personal information (both on purpose and inadvertently). Over seven episodes, the series highlights different aspects of privacy that users may have never thought of, like the role of mobile data.
“If I let my friends know that I like Game of Thrones and Star Wars and that I’m left leaning politically, we might assume that’s all people might know,” Gaylor told Fast Company. “In fact, much more can be learned about who you are by correlating that information with other people like you.”
China Has Its Own Netflix, and It’s Coming to a Smartphone Near You
When I describe Letv as the Netflix of China, Mark Li corrects me. “It’s the other way around,” he says. “Netflix is the Letv of the U.S.”
He has a point. Letv launched its Internet video streaming service three years before Netflix (2004 versus 2007). It was producing original movies and series long before Netflix rolled out House of Cards. And in recent years, the Chinese behemoth has expanded in ways Netflix hasn’t: It sells TV set-top boxes and smart TVs—devices that can help you watch all that video. “We want to control the screens too,” says Li, the ex-Googler who is head of data analytics at Letv, a company with a $12 billion market cap.
What’s more, the company soon will move into the U.S., encroaching on Netflix. Li will lead the effort, bringing Letv’s video streaming service, its original programming, its Apple-TV-like set-top boxes, its smart TVs, and, now, smartphones.
Tuesday morning, Letv announced its entry into the Chinese smartphone market, and according to Li and his colleague JD Howard, the company plans to offer phones in U.S by year’s end. “We’re going to be building a big presence here,” says Howard, a former executive with Chinese computer marker Lenovo, referring to the West Coast of the U.S.
It’s an audacious move, given the dominance of Apple and Google in the stateside smartphone market—and the limited track record of Chinese tech companies in the U.S. But as Li and Howard explain it, Letv isn’t a smartphone company. It’s an Internet video company. The phones are a way of delivering video. “What’s going to be critical,” Howard says, “is what you use your smartphone for.”
The company joins a wave of Chinese Internet companies eying the U.S. e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba recently debuted on Wall Street (its market cap the day of its IPO exceeded that of Facebook, Amazon, and IBM), and it has invested in a handful of companies that operate in the U.S. Search giant Baidu has an R&D center in Silicon Valley. And Tencent, another sprawling Chinese Internet company, now has a U.S. partner to offer e-books stateside.
So many questions hang over the American aspirations of these Chinese companies—and Li admits as much. But he and Howard aim to enter the U.S. market with certain blend of patience and audacity. They will respect the unique nature of the market, they say, but also offer tools no one else has offered. “There is room for innovation,” Howard says, “for offering a very different experience.”
At the moment, Li and Howard say, their aims are modest. Basically, they see their phones as a way of delivering Chinese video to Chinese speakers here in the U.S. Then they may do much the same for people who’ve immigrated to the U.S. from other countries. “If you want to have a little taste of your home,” Howard says, “you can have that.” But the hope is that they can eventually reach the broader market. In addition to opening an office in Silicon Valley, Letv is setting up shop in LA to be close to the creators of the content its screens are made for.
Still, the hurdles to entering the highly competitive U.S. smartphone market are enormous. “This is probably more work than they expect,” says Dan Miller, the founder of research firm Opus Research, who closely follows the market. “Supply chains. Relationships. Getting room on retail shelves. As you go down the list, it becomes such a formidable task.” Offering phones based on the Android operating system, Letv could face legal action from companies like Apple and Microsoft. And U.S. consumers may be wary of using devices that connect to machines in China. Many assume that Chinese companies freely share online data with the Chinese government, and the recent demand that Western tech companies provide Chinese authorities backdoor access to their hardware and software is hardly reassuring.
But Li says that Letv will run its online services from servers in the U.S., if need be. “We will do what is necessary to make the consumers feel like their rights are being protected,” he says. And he points out that the company will offer more than phones, including set-top boxes and smart TVs. In China, the company has even said it will offer electric cars. People watch TV shows and movies in cars too. It’s the video, Li says, that will carry the company’s devices forward.
That may or may not offer a path to success. Remember: Amazon, another stateside company that does streaming online video, recently tried and failed to crack the smartphone market. (Its tablets and e-readers do okay.) But Letv’s arrival shouldn’t be discounted out of hand. The company is playing the long game. Given its success in China, it has the resources to do so. And the same could be said for more than one Chinese tech giant on the edge of the U.S. market.
American consumers—and companies—are used to their gadgets being made in China. Chinese brands may not be far behind.
Also in Wired:
The Race to Mars and Back: A Future Tense Event Recap
President Obama has called for Americans to enter orbit around Mars by “the mid-2030s.” To make that happen will require a lot of scientific and technological research, international cooperation, and some very fit, low-drama astronauts. (In other words, so much for that Mars reality show.) On April 9, experts discussed the challenges and opportunities at an event in Washington, D.C., held by Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. (The event was underwritten by Lockheed Martin.)
“How you get there is going to define a lot of what we’re going to talk about,” noted Phil Plait, author of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog. Plait moderated “A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition,” a conversation that took a broad look at the most significant factors—such as the type of spacecraft and the fuel it uses—that would impact a group of astronauts headed for Mars.
One of the biggest questions about “How you get there” is: Will there be artificial gravity, or will astronauts be weightless? Each has its drawbacks. Tara Ruttley, an associate International Space Station program scientist, said, “Whatever the vehicle is to get us to Mars, I feel pretty strongly [that] there’s going to be microgravity involved.” Josh Hopkins, a space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., pointed out that artificial gravity is a lot like artificial turf and artificial sweetener—not quite the real thing, a substitute whose unknown effects could add in extra uncertainties to the process of space exploration. We know that spending an extended amount of time in microgravity environments changes everything from your bones to your immune system. But, as the panelists agreed, artificial gravity may be a case where the known dangers are preferable to the unknown ones.
Google Maps Says Edward Snowden Is in the White House
These days we usually only see Edward Snowden through video chats and telepresence robots, but Google Maps says he’s in the White House at this very moment! Look, it says so right there.
OK fine, he’s not actually there, but the whole situation is a pretty clever prank. It seems that someone used a Google-verified location—in this case a probably-not-real snowboard shop called Edward’s Snow Den that lists its hours as 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily—but changed its address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to create White House Snowden. (I tried calling the number listed on the Edwards Snow Den Google Plus page, but it just rang. For what it’s worth, it has a Seattle area code.)
Google, which is clearly trying to clean things up, has already removed the location’s verification and deleted some reviews people had left. The Next Web reports that commenters had posted things like, “great source of classified information” and “top notch info on the cheap.” Google hasn’t been able to get rid of the entry on the White House itself yet. For now you can see for yourself.
In other news, the controversy over a large Snowden statue in Brooklyn rages on.
DARPA Researchers Plan Software That Will Run for Hundreds of Years Without Upgrades
One of the biggest problems with enterprise software for business is just keeping it up to date. When you're running programs on a large scale, it's not so easy to just "do a quick restart" for updates and patches. But letting software become outdated leads to security and interoperability issues. So DARPA wants to create software that can run for more than 100 years, evolving so it won't need updates and restarts.
The program, called Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems (BRASS), is currently accepting project proposals in multiple areas related to programming language, methods, and new types of program analyses. The goal is to create software that is resilient and adaptive even as the technological environment changes over time.
“The inability to seamlessly adapt to new operating conditions undermines productivity, hampers the development of cyber-secure infrastructure and raises the long-term risk that access to important digital content will be lost as the software that generates and interprets content becomes outdated,” Suresh Jagannathan, DARPA program manager, said in a statement.
In the long run, BRASS could become a sort of family of programs that are targeted at different types of large-scale implementation—soda distributors have different needs than the IRS—but the broad goals of longevity and flexibility would be the same.
Microsoft would have had it a lot easier if Windows XP could have just evolved instead of needing to be upgraded.
The Public Deserves to Know Exactly What’s in the Trans-Pacific Partnership
In the next few weeks, Congress may give special status to a massive “free trade” treaty that you are not allowed to read. Based on leaks of portions of the deal, however, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears to be at least partly a grab bag of special favors for corporate interests—among them the entertainment and pharmaceutical industries—and an end-run around domestic law.
Naturally, given that Congress seems increasingly owned by moneyed interests, this mockery of thoughtful governance and policy may well happen. But there's still time to modify it, or block it outright if the worst provisions remain, and I'm glad to see an emerging coalition aiming to do just that.
The few government and corporate officials who are permitted to read the TPP insist that the proposed multilateral deal among Pacific Rim nations is a 21st-century approach to trade and other economic issues. President Obama and his trade representatives call the TPP a vital boost for American interests. Oh, and it's so wonderful and important that it absolutely must get “fast track” status, which basically means Congress would only be permitted to say yea or nay with little or no debate.
Freer trade is generally a fine idea. But what's leaked out from the TPP negotiations so far is grim, and we can thank the American negotiators for a lot of the badness—and we can thank Wikileaks’ public-spirited leaker(s) for what we do know. About 18 months ago, for instance, Wikileaks published a draft of the “intellectual property” chapter, and published an updated draft last November. Public health officials were among many to sound the alarm, since the TPP would likely lead to higher drug prices and expanded industry control over medical technology and procedures.
One of the biggest winners if TPP goes through with the draft provisions would be Hollywood film studios. The consistent U.S. position—expanded control globally for copyright holders, including longer terms and even more draconian penalties for infringement (and even some security research)—amounts to a Hollywood wish list. Unfortunately for the rest of us, if enacted as drafted, the TPP would have "extensive negative ramifications for users' freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples' abilities to innovate," according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Which makes it absolutely no surprise that the latest heavy-handed lobbying for the TPP comes from Hollywood, which is always looking for ways to restrict or block any innovation that it can't control outright. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the film studios' top lobbyist, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, has been imploring his former colleagues, especially Democrats, to move ahead with the deal.
A more recent leak raised alarms among all kinds of good-government, environmental, and other circles, because it might expand an already-abused system. The “investor state dispute settlement provision,” or ISDS, lets companies sue governments for acts that interfere with business. There's some logic for this if the government in question has, say, simply expropriated a company's property. But a version of this provision in an earlier treaty has led to disgusting behavior by tobacco giant Philip Morris in Australia and several other countries; for chapter and verse, watch this brilliant piece by HBO’s John Oliver. It's better journalism on this topic than anything else I've seen on TV, by far.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is among a number of people to sound a justified alarm on this. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, she gave an example of how ISDS might work:
Imagine that the United States bans a toxic chemical that is often added to gasoline because of its health and environmental consequences. If a foreign company that makes the toxic chemical opposes the law, it would normally have to challenge it in a U.S. court. But with ISDS, the company could skip the U.S. courts and go before an international panel of arbitrators. If the company won, the ruling couldn’t be challenged in U.S. courts, and the arbitration panel could require American taxpayers to cough up millions—and even billions—of dollars in damages.
Worse, Warren says, ISDS sets up a quasi-judicial system staffed entirely—this is not satire—by corporate lawyers. Further, she and other critics say the treaty could make it impossible for the U.S. to take serious action on climate change and could make the next financial crisis even more likely by undermining national sovereignty. If the critics can be believed, this is a grotesquely bad deal by any standard.
A big if, which makes the secrecy all the more unreasonable given the scope of the proposed deal. So why have America's trade representatives, like the administration they serve, been ducking disclosure and dissembling when they do speak? Perhaps that's because they know the public would get angry if it learned what was going on.
You might expect that a deal affecting up to 40 percent of the global economy would get near-saturation coverage from political and business journalists. Wishful thinking, as usual. What does it tell you about the journalism trade, for example, that most of what we do know about the TPP is a result of WikiLeaks' publishing of several chapter drafts, as opposed to digging by traditional organizations? Oh, there have been some stabs at serious analysis in the press, but most of the coverage has been the standard blend of stenography and rah-rah fluff. New York Times ubercommentator Thomas Friedman, a TPP supporter, transcended self-parody when he said on TV that he supported another trade deal without knowing what was in it, because “I just knew two words: free trade.” His more reality-based colleague, economist Paul Krugman, took a closer look and concluded “there isn't a compelling case” for the pact.
So let's see the administration’s case—in public. Let's hope Congress will choose to do its job, which starts with not abandoning its authority. The more we know about this deal, the worse it looks.
I Beat the “Unbeatable” Poker-Playing Artificial Intelligence—Sort Of
The University of Alberta made headlines earlier this year when professor Michael Bowling and his team unveiled the “unbeatable” Cepheus Poker Project to the general public. I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, and I’m an avid poker player, so I rolled up my sleeves and faced off against it. It did not go as I had expected.
Cepheus is a computer program that has drawn strategic conclusions on limit hold ’em poker, analyzing more hands than the collective human race has ever played as a whole. It was refined for months, formulating optimal play in every aspect of the game. The algorithms and methodology of the Cepheus Project have potential applications in medicine, cybersecurity, marketing, and other avenues of game theory, so this development should excite even the nonpoker crowd.
Bowling told me in an email, “Interesting real life problems are about dealing with uncertainty: uncertainty about what chance might bring in the future, uncertainty about how other people might respond to your decisions, and uncertainty about what you don’t know. Real life is not like chess. Real life is like a poker game. This makes poker an ideal proving ground for advancing the state of the art in artificial intelligence. And [Cepheus] represents a milestone in the advancement of AI.” (Future Tense's Lily Hay Newman had discussed Cepheus’ real-world applications.)
I played against Cepheus online and won both 100-hand matches in blind-squirrel fashion. Cepheus is “unbeatable” though, so what happened? In this case, “unbeatable” doesn’t mean the program will win every hand or even most hands. Rather, it’s a long-term edge that we never get to fully observe. It’s a reminder that the breadth of artificial intelligence can be subjective and situational instead of absolute.
I played 200 hands versus Cepheus, a very insignificant sample size in poker. Many top online professional poker players have experienced a 100,000-hand break-even streak at some point in their careers. Says Bowling, “Using simple normal distributions … the probability of being ahead [of Cepheus] after 100 hands is 46 percent. After 30,000 hands the probability of winning is down to 5 percent, so still 1-in-20 people would think they were the better player after 30,000 hands.”
For most, the minutiae of poker theory are virtually inscrutable. It would take forever to discern, like staring at a Rubik’s Cube and trying to spot which stickers are switched. You could do it, given an abundance of time, but it wouldn’t be easy or fun without a computer. That’s the essence of Cepheus: Imagine a spectrum of starting hands ranked by strength. A player is perpetually trying to figure out where he stands, and all decisions are based on these approximations. Cepheus has decision-tree protocol lined up for every inflection point already.
There are billions of possible combos in a hand, and the program will analyze how its holding fares against an updated range of hands. No person could perfectly optimize this process. Most humans can barely fathom the chance and skill components of a critical situation with any sense of the big picture, often misattributing results with decisions and vice versa. In poker this happens a lot.
Says Bowling: “This plays strongly into one of our disturbing cognitive biases: attributing our success to our own skill, and our failures to bad luck. And this isn’t just an issue for poker players—everything from athlete evaluation to CEO performance suffers from the same bias. We want to believe the winners win on their merits, and not just being dealt better cards. True randomness is far more random than we expect. A series of apparently brilliant decisions may just be the result of someone being bound to get that lucky.”
Luckily poker in its observable form is unscripted—any hand can unfold any which way. The program’s appraisal can’t prevail every instance, even though its perception is theoretically near perfect. That’s not a knock on Cepheus but a comment on the nature of real-life problem solving at large. Poker too has gray areas, which keeps it fun. Battling the robot was more of an artistic vignette than a serious endeavor.
To call limit hold ’em “solved” diminishes the essence of poker. A random person can beat Cepheus even just by accident a decent portion of the time. Against an elite player, the program might eke out minimum wage, just enough to cover the electric bill.
The psyche, meanwhile, is where poker’s true luster resides. It’s what humans rely on in lieu of the insurmountable calculations. It’s not entirely allegorical: We maneuver through life by making selective snap judgments. What really brings the game of poker to life is the human element: patience, prudence, suspicion, instinct. Computers can reason through tough decisions, and Cepheus reinforces the quantifiable nature of certain human endeavors. But poker’s specific beauty is the instinctive part. That is where the best poker is derived from, raw and poetic and inexplicable. The same goes for most decisions in life.
Cepheus may best me the next time we play, but it will never enjoy the thrills and nuances of the game the way I can. So perhaps I’m still the winner in the long run.