There's a telling trend to the inbound PR pitches my journalist friends have been getting in advance of Super Bowl LIII. A company called SyncThink is promoting its FDA-cleared eye tracking tool to assess brain health on the sidelines in real time. Seattle-based startup Vicis is boasting the safest helmets in football.
We're also learning that the insurance market to cover football at all levels, from professional to Pop Warner, has been winnowed down to a scant few carriers. The sport more than 100 million Americans will tune into or stream Sunday is in serious jeopardy if the holdout providers decide they can't assume the (let's face it) incredible risk and near-certainty of catastrophic injury on the field.
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It would pedantic to go into all the ways football (which, for the record, I love watching, have written a book about, and even played somewhat competently in high school ) is one of the worst athletic contrivances in history, falling just under boxing and a few notches below those Roman blood orgies fought between slaves when it comes to health outcomes.
We're a pretty bright species. Better equipment has gone a fraction of the way toward making the sport safer, but it turns out that bashing into things with your head is just never going to be a great idea.
So what if we built machines to replace professional athletes?
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I can hear the groans from loyal fans and techno-skeptics now. But the idea isn't entirely novel. Back in 2015, Brighter Brains Institute director Hank Pellissier suggested replacing human NFL players with robot counterparts. As someone whose area of expertise is brain health, he has his reasons.
"Today, we hear regular reports of retired footballers wobbling forgetfully into awards banquets, crashing their cars suicidally, blowing their disturbed, demented and depressed brains out with revolvers," Pellissier wrote.
Putting a finer point on it, he outlined his alternative:
What's my solution? My game plan? Can football be pushed out-of-bounds? Can this cognitive-crippling problem be tackled? Should we walk it off the field? Should American's Favorite Game be cancelled, forfeited, abandoned?
(Pro Football is America's #1 most popular sport, with College Football tied for #2.)
You disagree? You say it's sad to sack football, to blitz it aggressively and dump it? You want to keep the game alive, but make it safe?
Well then, I suggest—we change the contestants… We Create "Football Players 2.0" - i.e., ROBOTS.
We can't protect the cognitive organ of the meat-bags who are presently performing for us with sacrificial results, so let's yank them off the field and substitute their frailness with metallic, omnipotent wonder-athletes.
There are a couple big challenges, of course. The knee-jerk response, like a frat boy eschewing protection, is that it just doesn't feel the same ... from a fan viewing perspective, that is.
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It turns out that may not be true. An article on eSports from the peer reviewed and perfectly legitimate (if dubiously named) journal Internet Research uncovered some of the factors motivating the booming trend of eSports viewing. For those who aren't familiar, legions of fans are flocking to YouTube and even live events to watch couch-bound players face off in grueling electronic sports competitions.
According to the authors:
The results indicate that escapism, acquiring knowledge about the games being played, novelty and eSports athlete aggressiveness were found to positively predict eSport spectating frequency.
During recent years, eSports (electronic sports) and video game streaming have become rapidly growing forms of new media in the internet driven by the growing provenance of (online) games and online broadcasting technologies. Today, hundreds of millions of people spectate eSports. The present investigation presents a large study on gratification-related determinants of why people spectate eSports on the internet. Moreover, the study proposes a definition for eSports and further discusses how eSports can be seen as a form of sports.
Translation: Many of the same factors that motivate football viewership (blood lust for athlete aggressiveness, escapism) are fulfilled by watching digital avatars. What the paper doesn't delve into is the degree to which the satisfaction of viewing eSports is derived from knowing humans are at the controls, but that's compensated for easily-enough in Robot Football. If the great engineer Hugh Jackman has taught us anything it's that robot avatars are at least conceptually possible. That's born out, too, by efforts to make Mecha fighting a thing.
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And even autonomous robots, in their way, carry the standard of human creators. May the best engineer win (and may kids aspire to scholarships in robotics, computer science, and electrical engineering, not head bashing).
Of course, there are also some pretty steep technical challenges. It's taken years to make robots that respectably approximate the human gait, though by some accounts that threshold has at last been passed. Boston Dynamics in particular has made some alarmingly lifelike machines that display biomechanical fluidity and competency. I, for one, would love to see Atlas run a deep nine to the back of the end zone.
It's still early days for humanoids. Robots are getting pretty good at performing complex repeatable tasks, but throw in a few variables and you start seeing YouTube compilations of robots falling over. Teleoperated robots controlled remotely by players wearing first-person view goggles would cut down significantly on the challenges of straight automation, but I'm a realist. Let's call this a technology development goal and put a twenty year target on it.
In the meantime, we're starting to see examples of primitive robot athletes. Toyota engineers built a basket shooting robot called Cue, which has a pretty impressive J, for example. The Cybathlon in Zurich pits robot-assisted humans living with disabilities against one another in athletic competion.
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And robot soccer is already a thing, sort of. From a spectator standpoint it's actually getting better. "Collectively, [the robots] form a team that's teaching roboticists to build—dare I say it—synergistic machines that cooperate to form something bigger than the sum of their individual teammates," robotics reporter Matt Simon writes in WIRED. Isn't that what sports are all about?
This may sound a bit shocking, even repulsive to the dedicated fan. But don't forget, more than a decade ago, when Fox Sports unveiled a digital cyborg mascot during a Sunday game, people thought the same thing.
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"Yet viewers seemed to slowly adjust to this new reality," writes Mark Wilson in Fast Company, "like it had always been reality–that a robot doing jumping jacks next to an advertisement for a Ford F150 between plays was simply the natural course of things."
The robot's name is Cleatus, by the way. He's quickly becoming my favorite player.
Look, I'm not un-American. I love me some football. After years of suffering as a San Diego Chargers fan, I now live in LA and have a horse in this race. (Go Rams! Good effort this year, Rivers & Co.) But even diehard fans have to see some major flaws in our most hallowed of national sports.
I'll give the last word to Hank Pellissier from Brighter Brains:
"Teams of robots, shaped like human gridiron heroes, wearing the same colors, performing the same plays–blocking, tackling, pass-catching, running, punting, intercepting -- Let's create robots that can do everything Pro Bowlers can do, without mental incapacitation as a consequence."
Humans vs. Robots, which species is winning?
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