The Future of Sports: Dr. Priya Ponnapalli of Amazon Web Services (AWS) On The New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
…New technology should not be feared because of its potential misuse. Instead, there should be open, honest, and earnest dialogue among all parties involved to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately and is continuously enhanced.
New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.
As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Priya Ponnapalli.
Dr. Priya Ponnapalli is a senior manager at the Amazon Machine Learning (ML) Solutions Lab, where she leads a global team that helps AWS customers identify and implement their most important ML opportunities. As the lead for Amazon ML Solutions Lab’s sports business, she works with customers including the National Football League (NFL), Formula 1 (F1), National Hockey League (NHL), and sports organizations worldwide to enhance the fan experience and transform sports using ML.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Math was my favorite subject as a kid and my mom always likes to remind me that I got the best in mathematics award in kindergarten. My love for the subject continued throughout school and made me want to pursue a career in science and engineering. I’ve always loved working at the intersection of multiple disciplines and applying science to solve real-world problems. During my PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, I developed tensor decompositions to analyze and find patterns in high-throughput genomic data. Throughout my career, I’ve built and delivered high-impact ML products to solve key challenges in all industries, from finance and healthcare, to sports. I’m passionate about making ML accessible to all and making the technology industry more diverse.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My team has been working with Formula 1 to create F1 Insights by analyzing 65 years of historical race data
to extract critical race performance statistics, make race predictions, and give fans an insight
into the split-second decisions and strategies adopted by teams and drivers. During this time, my family has become huge F1 fans and we now have early morning alarms on race weekends to not miss any of the action. My six year old son wants to become an F1 driver when he grows up!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Whatever you do, put in your best effort — there is no substitute for hard work. I’ve always approached everything I do in a structured manner and invested the effort needed to get good at it — be it linear algebra or how to swim.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been fortunate to have many role models who have inspired me and mentors who have helped me get to where I am in my career. From my parents, my PhD advisor, to my leadership team at the Amazon AI org. I still collaborate with my PdD advisor to this day, and having her as a female mentor really helped me continue on the path to success.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“It’s About Damn Time” by Arlan Hamilton. Arlan’s tremendous journey inspired me to pull myself a seat at any table I want to be at, think bolder, dream bigger, and achieve more. I’ve been implementing this wisdom, and it has been going great!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Three traits that have worked well for me in business are quick decision making, taking calculated risks and making bold bets, and hiring great talent. Speed matters in business and I empower my team to use the right mental models and make fast decisions. They are encouraged to always look around corners for what’s possible and think big on behalf of our customers. I’ve hired a quality team and am focused on helping them be productive in what they do. Amazon was a good fit for me because the above directly tie to a number of the Amazon Leadership principles like bias for action and hire and develop the best.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Creating inclusive work spaces is a cornerstone of my leadership, and I’ve used my success to hire a diverse team. Artificial Intelligence (AI) in general and Amazon customers can all benefit from diversity of thought. One of the things I am very proud of is my own team. Our diverse perspectives come from many sources and help us push each other to think bigger, and differently, about the products we build for our customers and the community we build at work.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it?
In Sports, as in every industry, data, machine learning, and high-performance computing are ushering in the next wave of technical sports innovation. Sports serve as a great medium to bring the benefits of technology to life. AWS works with some of the largest sports organizations in the world, and with each of these customers, we work
backwards to help solve their business problems through innovation. We are innovating with the NFL to help solve for player health and safety; this work may ultimately extend beyond the football field to other sports and general wellness. We are helping organizations like Formula 1 redesign their cars, and we’re enhancing the fan experience through NFL Next Gen Stats, F1 Insights, Bundesliga Match Facts, Clippers CourtVision, and more. To give you one very recent example, my team at the ML Solutions Lab worked to prepare Swimming Australia for the Olympics using machine learning to fine tune the members and orders of relays. The result was medals in 6 out of 7 relays in Tokyo.
How do you think this might change the world of sports?
Our sports customers are using data and machine learning to truly change the game! Sports partners like the NHL, NFL, PGA Tour, F1, Bundesliga, the Seattle Seahawks, and more use AWS to build cloud-based video archives that will automatically tag specific frames, from hours of video, with metadata so that they can easily search historical
footage and surface pivotal moments. Real-time data crunching, analytics, and machine learning help enrich
broadcast commentary and provide predictive insights. This enhances and enriches the fan experience before, during, and after games through rich data, insights, and second-screen experiences. Through the use of rich data, we help teams innovate around training, health, and safety to further develop key components of the game like the NFL’s digital athlete: a virtual representation of a composite NFL player which will enable us to eventually predict injury and recovery trajectories. The “Digital Athlete” has the potential to revolutionize injury detection and prevention in the NFL and beyond.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
New technology should not be feared because of its potential misuse. Instead, there should be open, honest, and earnest dialogue among all parties involved to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately and is continuously enhanced.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
These are learnings and wisdom I’ve picked up along the way.
- Write your own invitation, and pull your own chair up to the table.
- Make sure you are always learning and growing.
- Network and keep up relationships.
- Work hard, don’t be afraid to take calculated risks, and be patient.
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d like to encourage all leaders to create diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces in your sphere of influence, however big or small that may be. If each of us put in the effort for this, before we know it, we may reach the critical mass for such movements to become self-sustaining. A diverse team with diverse perspectives is good for business.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Megan Rapinoe. I am inspired by her activism for racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and pay equality; her excellence and leadership, and the confidence with which she owns her success.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!