The 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


Today the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference presents a talk called “What Separates the Best from the Rest?  How the New Frontier of Brain Analytics Will Change the World of Sports” by Brian Miller and Wes Clapp of NeuroScouting.  Neuroscientists at a conference dedicated to sports analytics? What gives?

The Neuroscouting presentation grabs my attention, but not because of the content. It grabs my attention because it heralds the trajectory of Sloan over the next decade.

Last summer I wrote a piece asking whether genoism was an inevitable end for professional sports.  In that piece I cited, as one example of genoism, the emerging influence of neuroscientists, or, in some cases, faux-neuroscientist, on the process of player selection.

Back in 2002, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale were interviewed about brain typing, which was a fashionable–at least for former Celtics–player evaluation tool at the time. The idea was that certain brains were wired like Michael Jordan’s and others like Homer Simpson. Smart GMs accounted for brain typing before adding players to their roster. Kevin McHale was unambiguous, “If this [brain typing] gives you a quarter-inch, then it’s well worth it.”

Prior to the the 2008 draft, NBA teams were scrambling to ascertain whether Nicolas Batum had heart trouble, and many of those efforts were bent on determining whether Batum had inherited a heart condition from his father. In 2005, Eddy Curry refused the Bulls’ request that he submit to a DNA test in order to detect a heart condition. Alan Milstein, Curry’s lawyer, argued that such tests were violations of Curry’s privacy rights.

Will front office personnel eventually discriminate between players based on comprehensive knowledge of their genetic makeup? What happens when Darryl Morey uses his calculator in lock step with his microscope? This is how I put it last August:

It’s not hard to imagine a world where sports executives clamor for as much genetic information about their players as possible. After all, every quarter-inch counts. And these players are paid handsomely on guaranteed contracts. The PR executive will tell us its about saving lives, and the CFOs will tell their bosses it’s about saving money. No matter the spin, the information locked inside our DNA is always valuable. It’s the red apple of temptation, and everyone wants a taste. After the celebrity-cool advanced metrics community settles into a more pedestrian profile, there will be a Daryl Morey of DNA analysis. Bank it.

But this morning I’m thinking my imagination was in full-on fail mode. Not because the genetic profiling of athletes is a far-fetched idea; my imagination failed because the idea of genetic discrimination is entirely too simplistic. Things are galloping forward more quickly than most of us would have anticipated.

Genetic profiling is unavoidable. The softcore machinations of genetic profiling are already upon us. But that trend will quickly come and go. Or, put differently, the field of brain analytics is not the coming storm, it’s the drizzle that arrives on the wind ahead of the storm. Brain analytics is only the future if the future is thought of in terms of this decade.

The Sloan Conference—I say this lovingly—is one of the most interesting geekfests going. There is no doubt that Sloan represents the brightest and most forward-thinking of the sports community. But Sloan is not the only gig in town.

Daryl Morey’s analog in the artificial intelligence community is a man named Ray Kurzweil, whom Beckley Mason introduced you to a few weeks ago.

A great sports quant is capable of projecting a player’s stats from season-to-season. Kurzweil’s game is to project the rate of technological advancement. And by his numbers, technology is moving at such a rapid rate that we’re not far from a time of living side-by-side with a race of supermachines—machines that, in essence, reproduce themselves, naturally selecting their flaws in a kind of electronic Darwinism. The future, according to Kurzweil, is a place where androids not only dream of electric sheep, they make them. Kurzweil is betting that the near future will take on post-human, fully-cyborganic dimensions.

Once the Sloan Conference crowd begins to mingle with the peculiar breed of futurists whom frequent the Singularity Summit, an annual gathering associated with Kurzweil, all bets are off.

Advancement in sports should soon begin to pace itself to the beat of exponents. Concern over things like whether players once used HGH might be remembered as the stump speech blather of prudes and prigs.

The February 21 issue of Time Magazine (check out their companion piece) ran a profile of these futurists, largely centered around the work of Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. If you’ve read the cover story—2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal—you know where this is going.

Who is Aubrey de Grey?

Briefly, Aubrey de Grey is a Cambridge PhD who believes aging is a disease and is, therefore, treatable. He’s made all sorts of crazy sounding statements, like saying there are people alive today who will love to 1,000 years old. One of his main contentions is that we can treat cells and tissue to repair and rejuvenate themselves. Until recently, his contemporaries were more than a little skeptical of his theories. But some things are starting to break his way. For example, Harvard recently successfully stalled, some say reversed, the aging process in test mice. Imagine Ratatouille as Benjamin Button and sit back as the mind boggles.

Why is it necessary to marry Kurzweil and de Grey? The answer is simple, really. If technology advances at a Kurzweillian pace, then the medical technology necessary for de Grey to realize his theories in action will eventually emerge, and perhaps much sooner than we’d expect.

What does this mean for the future of sports? Well, if Kurzweil and de Grey prove correct it means the end of human athletics, at least as we now define ‘human’. It could potentially mean the beginning of cyborganic athletics, which is spooky-scary from where I sit.  The possibilities extend beyond comprehension. I’m not trying to predict those things. The point of this post is to suggest where the Sloan conversation is going.

But let’s assume Kurzweil and de Grey are wildly off base in their projections. Even still there is no doubt—witness the presence of neuroscientists at this year’s conference—that the world of Kurzweil and de Grey represents the future of the Sloan Conference more than something as mundane as mere advanced metrics.  And it’s probably closer to the heart of the Sloan Conference. I think it’s inescapable that the 2020 Sloan Conference will have much more to do with the incorporation of new machines and new medicine into sports than, say, the relative value of different types of assists. This is just another way of saying that Sloan isn’t really about the sports analytics so much as it’s about the future of sports.

And why shouldn’t it be?

A few weeks back when Beckley Mason took up his Singularity discussion he pushed toward a conclusion with these words:

But that shouldn’t keep us from asking, on a micro level, about the same issues when it comes to professional athletes. Whether you see progress as W.B. Yeats did, as slow thighs lumbering inexorably toward a less noble future, or believe evolutions in technology will herald a better world, the forward march is inescapable. Just ask my Grandpa. On Skype.

Professional sport has historically acted as a Polaroid picture of society, taking its time and a few shakes to produce the mirror image. Jackie Robinson’s courageous integration into the Major Leagues came after a similar process for black troops in World War II. The Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King would never have held the same cultural meaning prior to the Feminist movement gaining national prominence. While Robinson nor King was the singular catalyst for the social change they helped to inspire, both were a public image through which America could behold its own changing face.

But unlike these remarkable cultural touchstones, it’s likely that athletes will be even closer to the forefront on the issues surrounding radical advancements in medical technology.

To my mind, that sounds exactly right. And Sloan, it seems to me, is really about the business of peering into the future, for better or worse.
  • wannabe_fake_tough_guy

    Don’t let me throw ice-water on your “geek-fest”, but let’s remember the last time these so-called quants were let out of the lab…they became the next big thing in high finance. Credit default swaps, securitization of sub-prime mortgages, ultra-high speed trading based on “trends”, and let’s not forget hedge fund and short-sell abuses.

    I’ve been a “stat” guy ever since I kept log books gleaned from my bubblegum cards. Call me old-school (or old fogey), but it’s getting to be a bit much. PER??? Matt Bonner is a top 3-4 player on the team? How many titles has “wonderkind” Morey won with this approach (sorry about Yao)? Hollinger as a prognosticator (give me Jimmy the Greek any day). Stats, advanced stats are good, great even. But to discuss, scout, recruit and even enjoy basketball and other sports…you still need eyeballs on the court/playing field.

    BTW, Eddy Curry did not deserve a big contract. Not because he refused a DNA test, no. But because he is/was a crappy basketball player (and maybe a crappy person to boot). Did stats tell me this? No, eyeballs did.

    Back on topic, today’s column was interesting, and I agree about the “peering into the future” bit.

  • BlaseE

    A little off topic, but Our Lady Peace’s somewhat concept album “Spiritual Machines” featuring spoken tracks by Kurzweil is awesome.

    The first paragraph of the lyrics part is especially interesting in the context of your article.

  • rob

    Terminator meets Mr. Peabody.

    Analytical science is a marvel. Understanding what might happen or using data to project what will happen is nothing new to the world. And I’m not suprised of it’s use in professional sports.

    However I don’t think it should ever be THE basis to select players or ever be a model that can project the human spirit. Too many times players are selected or projected to be a phenom only to have them become mediocre. Consequently there are a lot of athletes who most wouldn’t have thought could have become professional only to become stand outs in their given sport.

    Does analytical science have the abiltity to tap into such factors? Sure it can diagnose the present and those formulas can be used to scientifically theorize future events. But too many times it is only calculated hypothetics.

    What’s concerning is will the future of sports recruiting be totally based on this evironment. My belief is the human spirit will always prevail in situations where total scientific analysis is used to determine which athletes will be best selected to play on any given team.

    Now if one could ever figure out how to make any player become a superstar…perhaps this is what all this is about.

    Interesting to say the least. I look forward to future reports from this conference as well as logging into TrueHoop during this time.

  • Alix Babaie

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. The human spirit will ALWAYS be the variable that can not be accounted for when peering into maximizing the complex engine which is the human body.

    Advanced science has afforded us the benefit of being able to repair limbs and organs better than ever before but if we are not careful, we will lose the very essence that makes us who we are……I know that I would not want to live forever.

    You see these people who have had so much plastic surgery and Botox that they look like mannequins in a department store……not sure that is exactly living the high life.

    We will probably look back 20 years from now and say that the folks that took HGH and steroids were just dabbling in kid’s stuff compared to what we may see in future when advancements inevitably come to pass and find their way into sports.

    Players with robotic limbs or fueled on complete age reversing drugs would really take the cake, wouldn’t it?

  • SAinSLC

    Nerd Alert!

    With all due respect to those whose brains comprehend and excel in this arena, doesn’t it seem like there’s a lot of Sci-Fi-esque (pretty sure I just made that up) predictions and conclusions that are being made? It has the feel of kids raised on Star Wars and Twilight Zone refusing to let go…

    Am I just too simple?

  • Alix Babaie

    Yeah, you are just too simple. 😉

  • Alix Babaie

    Although I won’t argue with you that this post had a topic that would draw Skolnik, Poindexter and rest of the “Revenge of the Nerds” gang right out of Adams.

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  • Rowrbazzle

    Okay, now I need to go watch Gattaca and AI again…

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