Science Diet: Football for Geeks


This week, we dig into your archives to bring you stories you may have missed. Stories about technology and how it impacts and changes our world today. And tomorrow.

ScienceDiet1. Their impact is real. But they are not. Yet.

Everyone from the scientists working in the field to science-fiction writers and futurists have long prophesied the inevitability of artificial intelligence. Today, we do have “intelligent” machines — but they accomplish all that they do with brute-force methods, without any genuine intelligence. Getting them to “think” in human ways has been fruitless so far.

This review of the field considers three examples where the former approach has been successful — machines that play games, those that translate languages and those that are, at least partially, able to answer questions formulated in ordinary language. The brute-force methods, however, are successful only because they address the problem superficially, relying on raw computing power.

Sceptics say that human thought is inherently non-algorithmic, and therefore artificial general intelligence (AGI) is impossible. They fail to comprehend, however, that the laws of physics as we know them require that AGI be possible. This is because of the universality of computation — anything a physical object does, can, in principle, be emulated by a program on a general-purpose computer, given enough time and memory.


David Deutsch, a pioneering physicist at the University of Oxford, argues that knowledge does not come from extrapolating repeated observations or mere number crunching or clever statistical analyses. The core functionality missing in AGIs today, is creativity, the ability to produce new explanations. The breakthrough required, he argues, is a philosophical one — a new theory that explains how brains create explanatory knowledge and hence point the way to algorithms that can accomplish this.

2. What being “social” really means

You spend a lot of time on Facebook, curating your profile, making sure the world sees only those aspects of you that you want to be seen. That make you look cool. You add and edit and delete aspects of yourself at will. It’s a 24/7 occupation. But then you look at other people’s Facebook profiles and feel envious of the seemingly perfect lives they lead. They all appear so happy, with so many friends — you end up feeling empty. And lonely. You’re connected, but still lonely.

You’re with a group of friends, and you start fidgeting with your phone, pretending to send an important text or e-mail, because you’re bored. You don’t like the awkward silences in your conversation and resort to using the gadget to fill those empty spaces. You’re physically present, but otherwise you’re somewhere else. Or if you want to avoid conversation altogether, you show up with music blaring in your earphones. We can be together, yet alone.

Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist and a professor at MIT, argues that we have confused a connection with a bond. We are increasingly carrying out our social interactions via the various media that technology provides us with. Technology that allows us control over what we want to say and how we want to say it. Technology that provides us with an illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and intimacy. That allows us to keep one another at distances we can control. We end up expecting more from technology and less from each other.

3. Geeks in football

Football has always been one of the most conservative sports, when it comes to introducing new technology. Recall all the hoo-ha about using goal-line technology to help decide whether the ball crossed the line or not.

However, a silent revolution has been unfolding in recent times. Data. Lots of it. Everyone now tracks the obvious data: number of passes or tackles by a player, how much distance he has covered, and so on. But there’s much, much more: Opta, a sports statistics company, records 1,500 “events” from every game.

Statistics, through analysis, become metrics. Such analysis has become so important that every top club now employs a small army of data scientists to crunch the numbers and forage for clues on how to play smarter. It also provides some unexpected insights: it’s more important not to have rubbish players in your team than to have great players. Football may well be seen now as not just as a contest between 22 players and their managers, but also as one between the respective analysts.

Harry Redknapp, that journeyman manager if there ever was one, summed up the situation to his analyst thus, after losing a match: “I’ll tell you what, next week, why don’t we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?”

4. Technology in the elections

Indigenous science and technology, in the shape of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and the indelible ink, plays a crucial role in the administration of the general elections.

The EVM consists of a control unit and a balloting unit connected using a cable. More than a million of these EVMs are being used, which are powered by batteries. The voting data is recorded on a chip and it is claimed that the EVMs are so robust that unless the chips themselves get destroyed, the data can be recovered even if the batteries die out.

However, security researchers have long pointed out vulnerabilities in the EVMs, even as the Election Commission of India maintains that weaknesses found in other electronic voting systems around the world do not apply to India’s EVMs. One attack involves replacing a component with a look-alike that can be silently instructed to steal votes in favour of one of the candidates. These instructions can be sent wirelessly from a mobile phone. Another attack uses a small device to change the votes stored in the EVM between the election and the public counting session.

The researcher who exposed these vulnerabilities was jailed for a while before being released. For his troubles, he was given an award by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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