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Industry Transformations

Beat the robot

The 2011 science fiction movie, “Real Steel,“ takes place in 2020 and features a futuristic world in which robots, rather than humans, compete against one other in the boxing ring. The reason: normal boxing fights are no longer spectacular enough for the spectators. Similar to gladiatorial battles in ancient Rome, spectators thirsted for total destruction in the boxing ring, and since this is not possible in a civilized society between human athletes, sophisticated combat robots were used in the ring.

It is speculative whether robotic life-and-death battles could inspire masses today. Nevertheless, it is a fact that digital transformation is changing our society, and with it, consumer needs and consumer behavior. This raises various questions: In which direction will sport evolve as an event and as a spectator experience? Is it really going to happen that we, as fans, cheer for machines? Or does the fight “man against machine” promise greater excitement? Let’s take a look at three constellations in which man and technology can meet in sport:

Humans against each other with technical support

High-tech is already indispensable from the everyday life of competitive athletes today. Digitization has made a significant contribution to this. For example, athletes already use special applications in their morning routines, to provide information about the previous night’s sleeping quality, report minor injuries or physical discomfort, and document their state of mind. Current blood levels as well as fitness and performance data are also already provided on the athletes smartphones. In professional soccer, specialized high-tech machine based training facilities, such as the Footbonaut or Helix, have revolutionized cognitive and performance training. Digitalization has therefore enabled athletes to train more and more purposefully. In competition, however, they must (mostly) compete without technical support.

So far, these are admitted in man against man duels in only a few sports. Swimming, for example, has shown where technical support can lead. In the first decade of this millennium, world records tumbled: plastic-coated full-body suits resulted in significantly less resistance in the water. Athletes could suddenly swim faster than ever before. It quickly became all about which manufacturer could develop the best suit, the human skills moved into the background. As a consequence, the World Swimming Association banned the suits in 2010 to bring human performance back into the foreground.

Renowned Israeli futurist Yuval Noah Harari predicts that in the future, new performance records will more likely be set in the Paralympic Games, rather than in the Olympics. Only technical progress determines when it will happen. Already prior to the Olympic Games in 2012, the participation of the lower leg amputated sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who competed with two prosthetic legs, was discussed intensively. Although the South African finished far away from the medal ranks, equal opportunity was called into question as prostheses did not tire. Do prosthetic legged athletes have an advantage over their competitors? This question will have to be discussed more often in the future. Because at some point, the technology will allow humans with prostheses to run faster than people without.

Therefore, it is quite possible that the Paralympic Games will even attract more spectators than the Olympics.

Human against machines

Today, machines in many areas of our society can work much faster and more precisely than humans. It is human nature to prove to ourselves that we are superior to the things we have created.

Humans therefore still have a hard time accepting the superiority of machines. That is why the direct duel with machines is so fascinating to us. As early as 1996, the first man-machine duel in chess attracted much public attention. The software “Deep Blue” challenged the ten years unbeaten chess world champion Garry Kasparov. It managed to beat the chess grandmaster in one of six matches.

There are plenty of other examples: in the past year alone, computer software beat its human counterparts – all professionals and masters of their game – in poker and in the Asian board game “Go” (a far more complex game than chess). “Watson”, a computer system developed by IBM, has been superior to humans in the quiz show “Jeopardy”. In addition, programmers have recently developed a software that is able to defeat people in the computer game “Dota 2” (half-shooting, half strategy game) – without being explicitly programmed for it. With the help of artificial intelligence, the software program had taught the game itself.

Not only cognitively challenging games, but also ball sports have already featured intriguing man- machine duels. For example, German world class table tennis player Timo Boll took on the robotic arm “Kuka” and won only narrowly after great effort. Although this challenge was primarily initiated for promotional purposes, it still found worldwide attention. Is this something to imagine for soccer as well? That is what the followers of the Robo Cup, a worldwide community of tens of thousands of members, believe. It pursues the vision to compete against the reigning World Cup champion in 2050, with a team of autonomously operating robots – and to win. Today, Robo Cup is home to homemade soccer machines already competing against each other; while they still look quite awkward, who knows what the future might hold…

Machine against machine

Man-on-machine competitions attract large crowds, but also duels between man-controlled machines – and not just in 2020, as illustrated in the film “Real Steel”. Robot duels like Robot Wars are already captivating millions of people. For example, the battle robot duel between “Blacksmith” and “Minotaur”, described by fans as “epic”, now has more than five million views on YouTube.

While humans are still competing against each other indirectly by driving robots, Formula E will soon no longer require human interaction during the competition. The racecar series built in competition with the Formula 1 will soon let autonomous driving “Roboracers” compete against each other. First prototypes of these racing cars are already in promising tests on the track.

The goal is to let different teams compete against each other with exactly the same hardware. With the help of artificial intelligence, which each team develops itself, the racing cars are then competing without drivers on the asphalt at up to 300 km/h. Racers like the former Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg see this as a serious threat to their motorsport. On the other hand, bookmakers are listening: for their business model, it does not matter whether people bet on machines, people or animals – for them the most important thing is that they do it with high stakes.

Of course, it is currently questionable whether the fascination of robot clashes can also be transferred to highly popular sports such as soccer. Will the MLS Cup some day no longer take place between human teams, but between robots? Currently difficult to imagine, but at least not completely unthinkable. Ultimately, it is about the question of what we admire about the athlete. Today we want to see the human body and the human mind pushed to their limits. Legal tools that bring man closer to these limits are accepted. Whether this will be the case forever remains to be seen. At the end of the “Real Steel” movie, the robot “Atom” becomes the “champion of the heart”, which is celebrated by the public. Technically, competitions between man against machine and machine against machine are no longer a problem today. Ultimately, it will be about what the viewer and sports consumer wants to see in the future. Will they be more interested in the spectacle itself – or the relation to oneself?

Authored By

  • Sascha L. Schmidt

    Sascha is director of the Center for Sports and Management at the WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management in Dusseldorf, Germany.

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