The gambling industry is one that sometimes gets a bad press. Like the alcohol industry, they provide a service that people turn to when they want entertainment, but they also get the blame when people take the entertainment too far. For the majority of people who gamble, it’s a fun pastime that they indulge in with their spare cash. Only a small minority go on to develop problems with the hobby, but that doesn’t mean that the minority doesn’t need to be looked after and protected.
In the UK, one of the areas where gambling has come under most scrutiny is the provision of betting terminals within bookmakers’ shops. It’s not uncommon for a customer to visit a bookmaker, place a bet on a sporting event, and then spend some time playing games on a betting terminal before leaving. There has been a campaign within the country for some time to restrict access to, and maximum spend on betting terminals such as these for some time, with the Government finally bowing to pressure and imposing a £2 maximum stake per bet on the machines as of 2018.
Quite why the betting terminals have come in for such specific scrutiny is unclear. In practice, they host many of the same casino games as you’ll find on a mobile slots website. Mobile slots websites, which are popular within the UK, remain free to operate unrestricted in the country, and there are no current plans in place to restrict the amount that customers are permitted to spend on slot games. It may be the case that the UK Government is unable to legislate on the websites because many of them are based offshore, or it could equally be the case that customers who visit bookmakers are considered to be more likely to become problem gamblers.
Whatever the real reason, a new initiative has been put in place to assist those problem gamblers without imposing further restrictions on those who have a healthy relationship with the hobby – and artificial intelligence technology is right at the heart of it. As was first reported by the BBC, every single internet-connected fixed-odds terminal in the UK is currently being updated with brand new AI software which monitors the betting habits of players, determines patterns in their gameplay, and identifies when irregular betting activity may be occurring. The irregular activity would be classed as a sudden upswing in the speed at which bets are being placed, or an increase in the stake being placed on each bet. Both are considered by psychologists and experts to be key indicators of somebody gambling on impulse.
Should the AI tech detect any such activity, it will freeze the screen of the betting terminal for thirty seconds, and display a message on the screen inviting the player to reflect on the bets they’re placing, and consider imposing either a time or spending restriction on themselves to avoid developing problematic gambling habits. It’s hoped that thirty seconds is long enough to bring the player back from ‘boiling point’ and reflect on whether they truly want to place another bet before the bet is placed.
As well as freezing the customer out and giving them a warning message, the AI tech is also smart enough to send an alert to the human members of staff working within the bookmakers. It then falls upon the staff to assess the player’s situation and determine whether or not it’s ethical to allow them to continue playing – although, of course, the AI software isn’t able to determine whether this wellness check has taken place. After thirty seconds, it will unlock the terminal and allow the player to carry on – although it will freeze the screen repeatedly if it believes that the player’s betting habits have become erratic.
The move has been introduced not by the Government of the UK, but by the Betting and Gaming Council – a group of large companies within the betting industry who issue advice and guidance within their field. They paid for the development of the purpose-built AI – which is known as the Anonymous Player Awareness System – and also facilitated its implementation. It’s thought that more than five thousand fixed-odds betting terminals have been upgraded to include the AI technology at the time of writing, with every machine in the country expected to have had the upgrade by the end of 2019.
Not everyone who’s had the chance to assess the AI believes it will be completely effective. A study carried out earlier in the year in Norway assessed the feasibility of a ninety-second enforced break on betting terminals in the country, but ultimately concluded that the break wasn’t long enough to curb impulse betting, and therefore was likely to have a minimal effect on problem gambling and gamblers. The trial wasn’t on the scale of the operation in the UK, though, and didn’t make allowances for the AI to continually freeze the machine if the impulsive or irregular gambling activity didn’t cease. The true impact of the new initiative is likely to be unknown for several months.
This is yet another example of artificial intelligence entering the sphere of day to day living all around us, and in ways that we probably never considered before. Ten years ago, we assumed that AI technology would be all about self-driving cars and smart homes. We may just about have been able to visualize the existence of devices like the Amazon Echo or the Google Mini, because they come from the same school of invention as the automated assistants that are now a common feature on smartphones, but we’d have a hard time believing that any technology or AI expert ten years ago could picture the technology being used to track and monitor gamblers in an attempt to steer them away from addiction.
Now that the safe-gambling AI is a reality, we can’t help but wonder where else we might see AI trying to keep us from developing harmful habits. Will AI one day intervene if it sees us developing unhealthy habits during our online grocery shopping? Will AI software at our banks prevent us from spending in pubs and bars if it believes we’ve had too much to drink already? What sounds ridiculous today could become a reality tomorrow. That’s always the way with technology – you have no way of knowing what could be around the corner, and even trying to guess could make you look a fool.