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How AI and facial recognition tech could reshape Las Vegas casinos

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
The Las Vegas Strip at night

The year is 2022, and you’ve just pulled up a seat at one of thousands of glittering slot machines on the Las Vegas Strip. As the multi-colored patchwork of jackpots dances on-screen, something new pops up: your name, greeting you like an old friend.

That friend just so happens to be a face-scanning artificial intelligence (AI), cross-referencing every contour of your face as quick as it can in a bid to make the gambling experience more seamless than ever before. 

That’s the future that nearly a hundred casino executives, industry analysts and lawyers crammed inside the UNLV Boyd School of Law to discuss last Friday during a day-long marathon primer on AI, machine learning and facial recognition — and how it could transform nearly every facet of the casino experience. 

Exactly how the gaming industry implements this new tech, however, could be as much of a minefield as it is a business boon. 

Though the possible applications of machine learning and facial recognition in casinos are many, they largely fall into the customer service realm, allowing a casino operator to automatically recognize who you are and adjust service in real time. 

Facial recognition could allow camera-equipped slot machines to recognize and log in VIP players, potentially cut down on fraud, enforce self-banned or casino-banned players and increase the potential for a casino to snag new players in existing customer loyalty programs. 

At the table games, the use of facial recognition cameras could drastically reduce the work done by pit managers by allowing them to identify and track known players instantly, instead of tracking those players by the clothes on their back. 

All these discussions are spurred by the fact that casinos are already looking to integrate these technologies into their games, said Anthony Cabot, Distinguished Fellow in Gaming Law at the UNLV Boyd School of Law and an organizer of Friday’s conference. 

“What we're seeing is this introduction of technology into the gaming industry in ways we've never seen before, and because of it, it started to raise issues — or questions — as to how this works and what the ramifications could be for things like patron privacy, anonymity and data protection,” Cabot said. 

In seminars ranging from explaining AI to diving deep into its implications on the slots, table games and sport books to the new possibility for casino security teams, nearly two-dozen speakers delved into a morass of competing laws, perceptions or other problems that could doom the technology before it got off the ground.

When it came to solving those problems, there was little consensus. Still, Cabot said he is hopeful that a collaboration from the industry and its regulators while the technology is in its infancy could be key in ensuring the best solutions eventually rise to the top.

“This literally was the first time, that I'm aware of, that the industry and the experts and the regulators have ever gotten together to even discuss these issues,” Cabot said. “We're right at the cusp of a new era, and it gives us that unique opportunity to do it right from the beginning.” 

Among all the potential benefits of the use of biometrics and AI in casinos, perhaps none stands to make as much of a societal impact as the potential to help identify or address so-called “problem gamblers,” or those gamblers whose behavior has veered into unhealthy or addictive tendencies that actively harm their lives. 

Research shows few gamblers meet the clinical criteria for problem gambling — only about 8 percent or less of gamblers display problem gambling behaviors, with just a fraction of that representing those with a diagnosable gambling addiction — but diagnosing and ultimately steering such gamblers to clinical help has long been a challenge for the industry. 

Enter the use of data and machine learning as a vehicle to find the most harmful behaviors. Through the use of specialized games designed to separate typical gamblers from problem gamblers, researchers have hypothesized the added use of facial recognition could help operators more quickly identify exactly who might need professional help — assuming the machines don’t misdiagnose a gambler along the way. 

But Alan Feldman, Distinguished Fellow in Responsible Gambling at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute and a former executive at MGM Resorts International, told The Nevada Independent that while facial recognition presents an opportunity worth more study, the field is still dominated by more questions than answers. 

“Facial recognition technology has become quite effective in recognizing an individual, but as it relates specifically to problem gambling, I'd say the jury is still out,” Feldman said. “There is still an understanding of what we'd like to know, in other words, it would be nice to know if there were patterns you might detect that might prevent someone from getting into any kind of trouble, or if there were patterns that could actually identify someone who is in trouble.”

As the field develops, one key concern — both for the use of facial recognition for problem gambling as well as its use in casino games more broadly — remains: the inevitable conflict between facial recognition technology and an expanding slate of data privacy and protection laws. 

Feldman said that even if the system could manage to identify and alert an operator to a customer with problematic habits or behaviors, nothing would stop customers from opting to remove themselves from the system entirely. 

“Here you have the unintended consequence of an impossibly bad outcome coming from a really good intent and a good idea, which is: let's go see if we can identify people who may be having a problem and keep them healthy, and instead, what we do is upset a customer, cause them to refuse to let anyone see their data,” Feldman said. “And now, whatever problems they are going to suffer, they are going to suffer them alone, with no one observing.”

As of now, casinos would largely be bound by the country of origin of the customer when it comes to matters of such privacy regulations. For many states in the U.S., those laws are lax or non-existent, but some states, like California, are adopting new measures that would allow people to opt out of the collection, use or sale of personal data. 

Even more comprehensive than the California law is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, often referred to by the shorthand GDPR. A massive omnibus measure that marked a watershed moment in the legal development of data privacy and protection, GDPR stipulates, among other things, that users have a right to have certain data erased entirely. 

As the gaming industry rapidly develops its own uses for such technology, growing unease about the use of facial recognition by governments and police forces have shined an Orwellian spotlight that’s led some local legislators to ban its use outright. 

Still, as of September, a Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of U.S. adults trusted law enforcement officials to use such data responsibly. Those same respondents were much more bearish about advertisers, however, with just 18 percent of adults placing any trust in the vast American marketing machine. 

That is to say nothing of increasing concerns over the safety of such massive tranches of personal data — data that may prove easy targets for hackers or other malicious actors under the right circumstances. Data breaches have already become an everyday risk of an increasingly internet-connected world, and the addition of yet more personal data to casino back rooms could potentially increase the value of hitting casinos with hacking attacks like ransomware. 

For the casinos of Las Vegas and beyond, Cabot said convincing the customer to go along with facial recognition will come largely in the industry’s ability to eschew existing practices from the social media giants, such as the widespread use of such data by Google or Facebook for more online advertising. 

“There's different ways this can evolve,” Cabot said. “In one sense, we can do nothing, in all the different casinos, manufacturers, they can all go out and do their thing and try to comply with this patchwork of laws. The second thing we can do is, as an industry, try and get ahead of it.”


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