Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Domo Arigato

Alright readers, time for another round of "Smack" talk. This time, our friend and I return to the sports world, and discuss the limits of fandom, robots in sports, and exploding helicopters.


Blogometrics: Do you think sports fans would root For robots?

Smack: No. Maybe cyborgs.

B: I really wonder about this.

Watching Roger Federer is almost like watching a tennis robot - he's just so solid. On top of that, he really doesn't have a personality outside of "I am the best, I am here to win tennis matches." Overall, very robotic.

I think in some sports the answer would be "yes" - others "no." NASCAR - "no." Horse racing - "no." Football, though? What if the human element was removed, and robots played out the strategies of their coaches...? Baseball...?

S: I might watch a few robot football games just because they’re robot football games, but I’m not going to become a huge Unit Number 8 fan and buy its game jersey. And once the novelty wears off I won’t watch anymore.

B: Exactly. But are you really a big "Tom Brady" fan, or are you a fan of the "QB for the New England Patriots?" Did you root against Matt Cassell last year, because he replaced your "malfunctioning unit"?

I think most fans root for the laundry - I'm not saying this robot thing would work, but I'm not sure it would be all "novelty."

S: Well I’m definitely a Welker fan just because of the way he plays the game. I like other players that don’t play for the Patriots, and I dislike players that are on the Patriots. You wouldn’t have diehard fans “bleeding red and blue” if it were a team of robots.

B: Do you think a new style of fandom could develop? One that fed on the desire of fans to see the game played to it's highest possible level? Look at it this way: leagues spend most of the season whittling down to the best teams, ones that are playing at a level above all others. This weekend, we'll watch the two best square off.

Look at Peyton Manning - robotic. Look at the Colts as a whole, actually. Look at the Saint's offense - robotic in it's execution.

I just wonder how much fans actually latch onto the "human" personalities of the team.

S: No, I don’t think so. You don’t have people lining up to watch computers play chess against each other.

You can describe Peyton’s play as robotic but he’s still a human being with flaws and emotions. He can still be affected by pressure or get injured. If you remove the human element you’d lose the fans.

Would you honestly root for robots?

B: I'm just putting it out there - and the answer is "probably not." I think I'd watch a little more keenly than you say you would.

I'm not sure your chess analogy works, because people don't really line up to watch humans play chess, either.

S: You and I don’t line up to watch chess but there are definitely pockets of chess fans, or at least people interested enough to watch a human vs human chess match. It’s really the only activity I can think of where a computer can pretty much do the activity flawlessly.

The only way I think it could work is if we were rooting for the robot builders to build the best robot. If all the robots were built the same with the same capabilities it wouldn’t work.

B: The strategic element is what I'm thinking of here - which is already present in the sports that I think this would work with (mostly baseball and football). You'd have coaches putting forth their strategies knowing that they'd be carried out to perfection - the only thing stopping them is the strategy of the other coach.

As far as your follow up with chess, I'd relate that to "Junk Wars" or "Robot Wars" or any of those other TV shows slash quasi - sporting events, where people invent and assemble robots to do battle. I think there's as much a following here in the U.S. for that sort of thing as there is for chess - because I can't remember the last time I saw chess on t.v.

S: If coaches were working with perfect “players” and it just came down to strategy vs strategy, you’re not going to see Bill Belichicks in the league. It’s going to be all geeks. One of the things that makes a great NFL coach is the ability to work with personnel and work with matchups, etc. Like what the Pats were able to do with Troy Brown, or what they’re currently trying to do with Edelman.

B: I totally agree with you - it would be very different. I just wonder whether it could generate a following.

S: Rather than wasting all the money on developing and creating physical robots, why not just make it an offshoot of Madden 2010 where they design a complete playbook and play with all players rated 100? Would there really be a difference?

B: Yes - you'd still see the action unfold before you on a real field.

Another example: The Romans used to flood their colosseums and hold competitive naval battles. This wouldn't be so different than a competitive tank battle. I think people might watch that.

S: A robot that can physically outperform Drew Brees or Randy Moss would be more expensive to develop and build than those guys make, however there’s no way you’re going to generate the revenue that the NFL does. If I’m a venture capitalist, “Great idea, thanks for stopping by. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

B: True, but you're getting away from the point. I'm not talking about the feasibility, the cost, the anything - other than whether people would root for robots.

You say no?

S: Not in any meaningful quantity. You might get the same fan base that Robot Wars got…

Maybe a temporary buzz if you hype it enough.

B: What if the robots were heavily armed, and very upset with each other? Well, programmed to be "upset."

S: So… a Plaxico robot?

B: Exactly. Coming around?

S: I think if you made robots with human elements, you’re at least giving potential fans something to latch onto. A “personality” if you will. If robots had certain strengths and weaknesses that could be discovered and exploited, then maybe you could have something there. But clone robots executing perfection wouldn’t be as entertaining, I think.

B: You're probably right, though I actually think that having robots with human emotions would actually be the factor that turned it into a geek-fest, not the coaches.

Can you imagine "Unit B6A1 doesn't like operating in the snow. Perhaps he is made from scraps of an abandoned Russian satellite. The Green Bay squad will surely exploit this weakness of the Tampa Bay squad."?

S: Well yeah, the Tampa squad would surely be equipped with shallow treads that would be much less effective on the Green Bay tundra. Battery insulation would be an issue as well.

What kind of artillery are we talking about when you say “heavily armed”? Shoulder spikes?

What about liquid metal, like T1000?

B: Okay, let's just get this out of the way: If you do not agree that a field full of T1000s would be mind blowing, then you and I are done speaking. However, that's not what I'm getting at.

I'm thinking more along the lines of rocket launchers - but that's really going off on a tangent. I wasn't serious, though it would be interesting to picture some rogue coach/robot design team secretly arming their robots. There would be no stopping them, theoretically. You'd actually probably have to call in the National Guard.

That would be interesting.

S: We’re changing the whole scenario, but yes I would watch 22 T1000’s duke it out. Or just plain heavily armed robots playing football. Would the point still be to get the football in the endzone? Would you bother with kickers?

B: No kickers. Instead, for the extra point, the scoring team would need to shoot down a helicopter.