Welcome to the machine
AI's sporting opportunity, cancel culture and alleged propaganda
The Elon Musk vs Mark Zuckerberg cage fight never came off, so sparing the world the sight of two puffed-up egos moving from spewing bile about each other to spilling blood. That hasn’t stopped the founder of Tesla, owner of X, race to spacer and Rishi Sunak’s celebrity interviewee from reflecting on the essence of sport.
“Musk said that work would become like the Olympic games, something done only for pleasure but still likely to be enormously popular. ‘A machine can go faster than any human, but we still watch competitions,’ he said.” The Times reporting on the Musk/Sunak artificial intelligence Q&A
He is right of course, but could the balance of our sporting interest tilt from man to machine? Could AI enable some sports to replace the human factor entirely, saving them from an illegal underworld existence in the process?
I rewatched the first Rocky movie on my iPad on a recent transatlantic flight. I had only a hazy memory of the outcome of its climactic boxing match and so was able to wince and flinch with elevated heart-rate through the faked bout. If I had had perfect recall of the detail, my enjoyment would have lessened to match a steadier pulse. The uncertainty was crucial.
What is the essence of boxing’s excitement? For me, it has much to do with imagination of what the pain and jeopardy in the ring must be like for the boxers, safe in the knowledge that none of it is coming my way. That and appreciation of skills I could only dream of possessing. My own experience of pain facilitates this imagining, just as my ability to drive a regular car on public roads assists my appreciation of the skill and danger inherent in Formula 1.
Now that I can watch avatars of the four members of Abba perform ‘live’ in concert, why couldn’t I get all the thrill of boxing without any individual risking their health in return for my ticket money or TV subscription? Let Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren harness AI and compete to build the most accomplished boxing avatar. Pit their creations against each other in the ring in an 80,000 seater stadium with an entirely uncertain sporting outcome. Think Rocky in the virtual flesh.
I can see the reassuring credits now: ‘Nobody was hurt in the making of this bout’. No less authentic than a scrap between a couple of influencers either, and just as likely to go viral.
This year’s F1 season rightly raises the question once again of the relative importance of man and machine. Max Verstappen runs away with the title; Sergio Pérez is at risk of losing his seat for a poor record in the same Red Bull car.
Take away the expletives-deleted interaction between drivers and their pit motherships and what would we be left with though? Might as well compete to build avatars to drive the cars. Give them artificial emotions with a propensity to profanity and maybe we can get just as excited (or not) about the racing as we are today. Might be harder to enthuse over Drive to Survive though - unless the scientists creating the avatars can come over all Dr Frankenstein on screen.
For now, we still want to see humans run as fast as they can - preferably without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs. Most of us know the sensations involved in running, sufficient to be able to imagine what a sub-10 second 100m might feel like. But as traditional athletics continues to slip in popularity, it’s clear that while necessary, spectator imagination alone is far from sufficient for any sport to survive.
Those sports that not only survive but thrive are likely to be the ones that harness AI, marrying man and machine - while preserving the allure of the frailty of the human condition - to take our enjoyment to new levels and into new dimensions.
Doubt the trend? Travel the escalators on the London Underground and you’ll currently see adverts for Rumble in the Jungle Rematch, billed as a ‘live immersive experience’ of the 1974 Ali v Foreman fight in Kinshasa. For now, actors and dancers are utilised, but it’s a small technological step…
Cancel culture ’55/’56
I stumbled on a fascinating exhibition of the art of Ben Shahn in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía last week. One piece stood out as very different - an energetic scribbled baseball slugger and catcher titled National Pastime. Like much of Shahn’s work, context is all.
National Pastime formed part of a 1955/56 exhibition of sporting art that toured the US before heading to Australia to coincide with the Melbourne Olympics. This was the era of McCarthyism with its anti-communist purges. The views of Shahn and three other artists were deemed inappropriate by some and protests were staged against the exhibition in Dallas.
“The more you try to find the subject in the paintings, the fuzzier you get in the head, and this is the way the communists want you to feel for when you are fuzzy in the head, you are ready for infiltration.” One objector to the Sport in Art exhibition cited in Cold War Economics: A New Battlefront in Psychological Warfare, 1948-1956 by Harry Blutstein. Read chapter 6 for the full story here
The show never made it to Australia, for reasons that remain opaque. Shahn’s picture has outlasted the misguided zealotry of the time. I like to view the furore it provoked as an enduring reminder of the dangers of censorship, not just of artists but of our sporting stars also. There are too many forced apologies today for opinions honestly held and expressed. Crank up the virtue signalling and you crush the essence of debate, and lose something of the authenticity of sport in the process. Might as well hand it all over to the avatars.
Curiouser and curiouser
I’ve often plugged articles from the insidethegames website in Sport inc. It has long been a valuable source of information on Olympic and Paralympic sport: part regurgitation of press releases from small sports, part investigative journalism, part opinion. Out of the blue last week came an announcement that the founders had left and the majority shareholders had taken full control. Key journalists are said to have departed.
I’d (naively) assumed the founders and owners were one and the same. Clearly not. A trawl of Companies House shows three directors aside from the departed founders. One a Ukrainian living in Greece, plus a Russian and a Hungarian. Curious, and makes me wonder about some of what I’ve been reading down the years.
And then up pops an article on a website called The Inquisitor suggesting links between the ‘new’ owners of insidethegames and the Kremlin. Curiouser.
I can’t vouch for The Inquisitor or its journalists’ work as I’d not come across this recently launched platform before. You can subscribe free and read its warning of Russian propaganda for yourself here
I hope the departed insidethegames hacks find a new home from which to hold sporting bodies to account very soon. I’m missing their work already.