Linkage 8/5: Puh-Puh-Poker Face & Protein Gamerz

journalpone0011663g002Building a Better Poker Face

In my semi-regular poker game with a crew of graduate school buddies, I have a reputation for honesty. This has its upside and its downside. When I bet, the other players generally assume I have good cards, which allows me to bluff – but scares everyone off when I actually do have good cards and want to maximize my return. In the end, I usually do okay, but can’t help but wonder how much better I could have done had I suckered someone into betting against my pocket aces.

According to a study published last month in PLoS One, I could possibly take those reactions as a compliment. In the experiment, researchers from Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, and MIT set out to determine the most effective poker face. Recruits were instructed to play a simplified version of Texas Hold ‘Em against a computer player represented with a random face – one of 300 different faces along a scale of trustworthiness to untrustworthiness. With each hand, the face changed, and the players chose to either fold their cards or call the bet of the computer player (who bet every hand).

Traditional wisdom goes that a poker face should be as neutral as possible, but that’s not what the study concluded. Human players tightened up against trustworthy faces, calling less, folding more and making more mistakes relative to match-ups with neutral or untrustworthy faces. The authors concluded that avoidance cues (dominant, angry, masculine) led to more aggressive decisions, while approach cues (happy, friendly, trustworthy, attractive) caused more conservative behavior.

“This suggests that poker players who bluff frequently may actually benefit from appearing trustworthy, since the natural tendency seems to be inferring that a trustworthy-looking player bluffs less,” the authors advise. Give it a try next poker night.

(And yes, that’s a Lady Gaga reference in the headline, in reference to Lollapalooza tonight. Couldn’t resist.)

Gamerz Help the March of Science

Speaking of poker, most of my playing these days takes place within the context of Red Dead Redemption, the XBox game that has been wasting the nation’s free time all summer. But a study appearing in Nature this week suggested that all those hours pounding away on a controller could actually help in the rather esoteric field of protein structure biology. Scientists often know the basic recipe of a protein – its amino acid structure – but are unable to determine how the protein folds into its three-dimensional structure without the use of advanced computation out of the reach of many laboratories.

David Baker, a researcher from the University of Washington, sought to solve this problem by reproducing the the “distributed computing” model of SETI@home – a system where thousands of home computers are deputized when not in use to process data from the search for alien life. Rosetta@home did the same thing for protein structure, but the network could only go so far in finding the optimal shape. To boost those efforts over the final hump, Baker created a game called Foldit, where players toy with a 3D model of a protein to find its thermodynamically ideal structure.

nature09304-f12All biochemical terms were translated into gamer-friendly terminology like “tweak” and “voids” – helpful when you’re dealing with “puzzles requiring substantial backbone remodelling to bury exposed hydrophobic residues into the protein core.” The game setup, which allowed for both competition and collaboration, was effective enough to create a rather accomplished community of protein-tinkerers. When compared to the Rosetta program, Foldit gamers out-performed the computer on 5 out of 10 puzzles and equaled it on 3 more. Excitingly, many of the players were non-scientists, demonstrating a means by which science can reach outside its walls to utilize the skills of other experts.

“We have found the game to be approachable by a wide variety of people, not only those with a scientific background,” the authors write. “In fact, few top-ranked players are professionally involved in biochemistry.”

See further Foldit coverage from Ars Technica, ScienceNOW, and Nature News – and you can play the game here (if the servers don’t crash – they’ve had some increased traffic this week)


Speaking of video games harnessed for scientific progress, New Scientist has a very cool article on Avida, a computerized world where artificial organisms can spontaneously evolve. The resulting strategies can be used as programs to help improve robots (and Roombas). Found thanks to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

A New York Times interview with John Donoghue gives an update on BrainGate, the microchip technology that translates the brain activity of paralyzed individuals into the motion of a cursor or robotic arm. ScienceLife talked about BrainGate research by the laboratory of Nicho Hatsopoulos back in March.

Jerry Coyne with a great post on why it’s awesome to be a biologist, with support taken entirely from a single issue of the journal Current Biology. (Also from Jerry’s blog, check out this nightmare fuel, if you daaaare.)

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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