The 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
Today theÂ MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference presents a talk called “What SeparatesÂ the Best from the Rest? Â How the New Frontier of Brain Analytics Will Change the World of Sports” by Brian Miller and Wes Clapp ofÂ NeuroScouting. Â 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 pieceÂ asking whether genoism was an inevitable end for professional sports. Â 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 fashionableâ€“at least for former Celticsâ€“player evaluation tool at the time. The idea was that certain brains were wired like Michael Jordanâ€™s and others like Homer Simpson. Smart GMs accounted for brain typing before adding players to their roster. Kevin McHale was unambiguous, â€œIf this [brain typing] gives you a quarter-inch, then itâ€™s well worth it.â€
Prior to the the 2008 draft, NBA teams were scrambling to ascertain whetherÂ 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 Bullsâ€™ request that he submit to a DNA test in order to detect a heart condition. Alan Milstein, Curryâ€™s lawyer, argued that such tests wereÂ violations of Curryâ€™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:
Itâ€™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 itâ€™s about saving money. No matter the spin, the information locked inside our DNA is always valuable. Itâ€™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 Conferenceâ€”I say this lovinglyâ€”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 namedÂ Ray Kurzweil,Â 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 ofÂ supermachinesâ€”machines that, in essence, reproduce themselves, naturally selecting their flaws in a kind of electronicÂ 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 peculiarÂ breed of futurists whom frequentÂ 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 ofÂ Ray Kurzweil andÂ Aubrey de Grey. If you’ve read the cover storyâ€”2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortalâ€”you know where this is going.
Who isÂ 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 andÂ rejuvenateÂ 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,Â 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 humanÂ 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. Â 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 doubtâ€”witness the presence of neuroscientists at this year’s conferenceâ€”that the world of Kurzweil and de Grey represents the future of the Sloan Conference more than something as mundane as mere advanced metrics. Â 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 shouldnâ€™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 Robinsonâ€™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, itâ€™s likely that athletes will be even closer to the forefront on the issues surrounding radical advancements in medical technology.