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Human Beings are Interested in Human Limits.

A Google AI system just won its second victory over the human Go champion. Does this mean that people will lose interest in Go? I don’t think so. It may eventually mean that human players will learn faster and that top-level human play will increase. Nor, will robot athletes supplant human athletes any time soon.

Athletics provides an excellent way for people to get and stay fit, become part of a community, and fight depression and anxiety. Watching humans vie in athletic endeavors helps us understand the limits of what people can do. This is something that our genetic endowment has wisely made fascinating. To a lesser extent, we are also interested in seeing how fast a horse can run, or how fast a hawk can dive or how complex a routine a dog can learn.

In Chapter 6 of “Turing’s Nightmares” I briefly explore a world where robotic competitors have replaced human ones. In this hypothetical world, the super-intelligent computers also find that sports is an excellent venue for learning more about the world. And, so it is! In “The Winning Weekend Warrior”, I provide many examples of how strategies and tactics useful in the sports world are also useful in business and in life. (There are also some important exceptions that are worth noting. In sports, you play within the rules. In life, you can play with some of the rules.)

Chapter 6 also brings up two controversial points that ethicists and sports enthusiasts should be discussing now. First, sensors are becoming so small, powerful, accurate, and lightweight that is possible to embed them in virtually any piece of sports equipment(e.g., tennis racquets). Few people would call it unethical to include such sensors as training devices. However, very soon, these might also provide useful information during play. What about that? Suppose that you could wear a device that not only enhanced your sensory abilities but also your motor abilities? To some extent, the design of golf clubs and tennis racquets and swimsuits are already doing this. Is there a limit to what would or should be tolerated? Should any device be banned? What about corrective lenses? What about sunglasses? Should all athletes have to compete nude? What about athletes who have to take “performance enhancing” drugs just to stay healthy? Sharapova’s recent case is just one. What about the athlete of the future who has undergone stem cell therapy to regrow a torn muscle or ligament? Suppose a major league baseball pitcher tears a tendon and it is replaced with a synthetic tendon that allows a faster fast ball?

With the ever-growing power of computers and the collection of more and more data, big data analytics makes it possible for the computer to detect patterns of play that a human player or coach would be unlikely to perceive. Suppose a computer system is able to detect reliable “cues” that tip off what pitch a pitcher is likely to throw or whether a tennis player is about to hit down the tee or out wide? Novak Djokovic and Ted Williams were born with exceptional visual acuity. This means that they can pick out small visual details more quickly than their opponents and react to a serve or curve more quickly. But it also means that they are more likely to pick up subtle tip-offs in their opponents motion that give away their intentions ahead of time. Would we object if a computer program analyzed thousands of serves by Roger Federer or Andy Murray in order to detect patterns of tip-offs and then that information was used to help train Djokovic to learn to “read” the service motions of his opponents? Of course, this does not just apply to tennis. It applies to reading a football play option, a basketball pick, the signals of baseline coaches, and so on.

Instead of teaching Novak Djokovic these patterns ahead of time, suppose he were to have a device implanted in his back that received radio signals from a supercomputer able to “read” where the serve were going a split second ahead of time and it was this signal that allowed Novak to anticipate better?

I do not know the “correct” ethical answer for all of these dilemmas. To me, it is most important to be open and honest about what is happening. So, if Lance Armstrong wants to use performance enhancing drugs, perhaps that is okay if and only if everyone else in the race knows that and has the opportunity to take the same drugs and if everyone watching knows it as well. Similarly, although I would prefer that tennis players only use IT for training, I would not be dead set against real time aids if the public knows. I suspect that most fans (like me) would prefer their athletes “un-enhanced” by drugs or electronics. Personally, I don’t have an issue with using any medical technology to enhance the healing process. How do others feel? And what about athletes who “need” something like asthma medication in order to breathe but it has a side-effect of enhancing performance?

Would the advent of robotic tennis players, baseball players or football players reduce our enjoyment of watching people in these sports? I think it might be interesting to watch robots in these sports for a time, but it would not be interesting for a lifetime. Only human athletes would provide on-going interest. What do you think?

Readers of this blog may also enjoy “Turing’s Nightmares” and “The Winning Weekend Warrior.” John Thomas’s author page on Amazon