Athlete 2.0

Written for keynote at #TheSpot2019, Lausanne.

Professor Andy Miah
May 29 · 13 min read

When thinking about our present TIMES, it is often tempting to describe them as exceptional, but really, there is no period in history which has not been remarkable and as an increasing range of activities in our lives become digitalised, there may be good reason to be cautious about the relentless technologisation of our lives.

After all, would the most remarkable moments in human history have been as amazing, if we had discovered them through digital media?

And so technology can often distract us from the importance of a moment in history, which is why the live event still remains of such great symbolic significance within our world.

And even when we narrow our lens to just thinking about technology, our past has always been remarkable. These times are nothing exceptional.

Indeed, evolutionary theorists may characterise our species as being distinguished by its intellectual capacity to set in motion the processes that lead us to elevate technology as the defining construct in our existence.

We are, as homo sapiens, defined by our capacity to re-engineer the natural world and put it to our use, which isn’t to say that we always make the most intelligent decisions!

Indeed, these things we create and celebrate as the evidence of our intellectual progress, do not always provide convincing cases of having improved the conditions of our lives

But, even if we grant ourselves the hubris of concluding that we have come far and that the world is now even more remarkable because of technology, how can we compare today’s achievements in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genetic editing with yesterday’s achievements in aviation, astronautics, or automobiles?

How do we determine which is more important a discovery, the Higgs Boson or the characterisation of DNA, or the realisation that 95% of the universe is made up of dark matter which we understand nearly not at all.

These worlds are incomparable.

There is nothing especially radical about our present times except to say that all times are radical. All times have seen humans transform the FABRIC OF NATURE and bend it to our aspirations to create conditions for our lives.

And when we think about the future of what sport looks like or what the next generation athlete will be like, we see these circumstances in profound ways

And so instead of claiming that these times are exceptional, as politicians often have us believe, we must talk of disruptive technology — instances of social transformation brought about by some form of shift in how we make sense of and exist within the world, a new kind of reality that we may occupy that leads to new social configurations.

Framing the future in such terms calls us to then identify evidence of disruption and find reasonable accommodations to such change.

And it’s these things that I want to us to think about.

For those of you who know my work, you will know that I always find SPORT to be among the most remarkable manifestations of these disruptions, but to make sense of them, we have to think more broadly of the concept of technology.

For instance, we see such evidence of radical disruption in moments of discontinuity. So, when Dick Fosbury leapt over the high jump in that way we now characterise as the fosbury flop, we find a singular moment in our technological history, whereby we discover how our appreciation for physics can transform our entire sense of human limits.

“I knew I had to change my body position and that’s what started first the revolution, and over the next two years, the evolution.” — Dick Fosbury

The last 40 years of sports science and engineering have led sports to become symbols of humanity’s vast investment into technological development and have emphasised the centrality of technological achievements to competitive ambitions across our modern world.

The aspiration to transcend and to break free from humanity’s limitations or, at least, to discover a new way of making sense of and experiencing the world are central to the ethos of international sports.

We are aroused by the athlete’s capacity to break records because it speaks to our desire to know there is something that goes beyond our current understanding of what is possible. Technology is a kind of magic that re-renders the world in ways that were previously unimaginable.

The production of technological artifacts is a way for us to continually evidence progress in our evolution, to witness its occurence, and to observe humans becoming more and more capable, at a time where some of the world’s brightest minds would have us believe that the evolution is over for the human species.

Even the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, finds application — to the horror of many historians who know it to be a motto focused on the principle of self improvement through virtuous education — in how the Olympic programme’s stakeholders imagine their own values. The Olympic Games are no longer a place where just athletes transcend human limits, but where the sponsors and broadcasters all bring innovation to the table.

We see this from one Games to the next and often in quite simple ways. Each Games is bigger and better than the one before. The audiences are bigger, the achievements even more extraordinary.

Increasingly, sporting events are underpinned by technology, which is employed to greater certainty over the successful delivery of an event, but which also to creates excitement among the participants.

For example, at the Rio 2016 and PyeongChang 2018 Games, Samsung has installed vast pavilions which celebrate and showcase its latest innovations in virtual reality simulation.

As a nod to the World Expos, which informed the values of the modern world’s sports mega event, the Olympic fortnight — and elsewhere in elite sports events — is a showcase of the latest technology and a glimpse into the shape of things to come. Indeed, this is a crucial part of the currency of the mega-event sponsorship deal. It is a space that allows a brand to align itself with excellence as a concept and to remind people that they are a company that is forging new ground.

In this way, sports are platforms where we get a glimpse of how technology will change our lives in the future. The brands that we find exhibiting through the Games seek to show the world that they are ahead of the curve and to excite us with the prospect of what may be coming next to our world.

For example, at the PyeongChang 2018 Games, Intel makes Games history by creating a choreography of drones in the shape of the rings, which functions also as a world record breaking drone show.

The moment is important for its technological achievement, but also for demonstrating how a singular moment within the most important symbolic part of the Olympic Games — indeed the singularly most iconic part, the revealing of the rings — can become available to all, as Intel also put on the show for each day of the games, weather permitting.

But the main point here is that this intervention is one component in the wider world of technological continuity that’s happening around sports and it is this bandwagon that is worth jumping on to ensure one’s company, brand, or community can stay ahead of the curve.

After all, Intel had before and have since been breaking drone world record after drone world record

We see this in a remarkable number of ways, from the PyeongChang 2018 world record breaking drone choreography to the integration of 5G and driverless vehicles.

And each of these moments in our technological history reveal a wider world of innovation that is taking place around sports, re-imagining it

All of this reminds us of how technological innovation is a currency and being innovative allows one to maintain such currency. Indeed, technology is literally a currency as we see all kinds of cryptocurrency emerge, most recently Facebook’s announcement of intent

And yet, our culture of technology divides us, both inside sport and outside of it.

Everything I have spoken about so far is to the exclusion of other subjects where many would argue we should focus our attention more firmly.

What does it matter if we can run a bit faster, if of our young athletes are more likely to be exploited or abused as a consequence?

What value do we derive from growing competitive sport, if that achievement is predicated on the social habits associated with excessive gambling, which can have all kinds of detrimental social consequences due to addiction.

And what value is there in the celebration of new sports when we simply replicate the inequalities and injustices that already exist?

We have to do things differently in the future.

We have to develop smart technologies, where smart means more than just bringing greater efficiency into a system.

And while greater efficiency can be a democratising force — after all if artificial intelligence delivers healthcare to 100% of the population because it is infinitely less resource heavy, then this is huge.

But we need to design smart solutions that are mindful of a matters of social justice, or where intelligent systems may make judgements.

Take the rise of driverless cars, MIT has a wonderful online tool to help us think about what sort of decisions a driverless car may make in the event of an accident.

Does it decide to save the people in the car or the people on the street? Does it matter who’s in the car and who’s on the street?

The interesting part of the exercise is nto, however, the decisions we make, but the biases we reveal in making our choices.

How does your evaluation of the worth of a person’s life change when they are described as a doctor, or a woman, ora man, or overweight, or unemployed, or black, white, or under 18 years old? We may like to think that it doesn’t change, but this simple exercise reveals those biases. Considerations of each of these facets and more are pertinent to how we design intelligent systems. It’s not just a matter of efficiency.

But as I said, debates about technology divide us and this makes sense of course. After all we know how technology has brought both amazing things but also bad things.

I have given hundreds of lectures on technological change and nearly always, responses are divided between those who can’t wait to see more technology and the world it brings and those who worry that technology takes us even further from what it is to be human.

So, how do we find common ground between these two perspectives, especially in sports, where this division is so profound?

One approach is to identify examples of innovation which have the potential to re-invent sports along lines that broaden its scope, reach, ethics, and value.

We see this in the context of a range of contemporary discussions around sport.

Back at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games, we saw days before the Games began within the Olympism in Action Forum, where foregrounded in the final plenary was a debate about the future of sport.

Buenos Aires, Olympism in Action 2018

Within the composition of this single session, we glimpse some of the technology trends and driving forces that are shaping sports future.High on the agenda was the emergence of new, technological sports, such as esport, drone racing, but how should we interpret these activities and their growth?

I propose to you that there is more to these activities than meets the eye and an explanation for why they occupy such prominence in the sports world has nearly nothing to do with whether or not we decide they are sports.

Instead, what we see in these pursuits is the manifestation of a range of innovations that have become central to the process of advancing societal ambitions.

Take drone racing.

The drone as an entity must be seen in its wider context.

Drones became major consumer platforms in 2013/2014, as vehicles for all kinds of humanitarian and social practice. A £1million competition was launched by the UAE titled ‘Drones for Good’ prize and in 2015, the world’s first drone film festival launched in New York, which has since nurtured a new language of film making

And in just 5 years, we now see remarkable examples of drone activity taking place in various sectors, most recently the delivery of the first human organ for a transplant procedure just last month.

Alternatively, in the world of esports, we must look at the longer historical development of computer game culture to make sense of what’s occurring today in its relationship with impacting sports.

For example, as of 2019, the computer game playing industry is now estimated to be worth more the music and film industries put together.

Perhaps related to this is the widespread moral panic that surrounds gaming. In 2018, the WHO characterised a new medial disorder, termed ‘gaming disorder’ and, despite evidence lacking, we often hear worries about excessive screen time in young people.

We understand also that digital environments are designed to optimise recurrent behaviour — they are designed to make us stay within them as long as possible. There may even be something especially compelling about living within these increasingly virtual realities.

Digital gaming is able to maximise our attentive focus and this may go some way towards explaining why it is that the humble practice of sports may struggle to draw attention. Indeed, beyond any comparison between the experience of sports and computer game playing, consider simply the fact that people can play games almost anywhere, anytime, and do!

However, sports require us to be somewhere specifically, at a particular time, often requiring time set aside in our schedule. And when scheduling is going out the window for many young people, this is a problem. Everything is now figured out on the go. People don’t arrange times and places to meet up. They just rely on being able to find each other through connecting on mobile devices, when they may be within the vicinity of each other.

The point here is that people’s habits are changing through new technologies. Entirely new cultural practices emerge around these new technological capabilities.

And to think, some of these things didn’t even exist 5 years ago

It is this wider context that we need to really make sense of to understand what’s happening to the sports world.

We live in times where sports are being reinvented. Not just the activities, but the spaces in which they are staged.

In sport, we see the desire to re-imagine the world through technology and presently there are a number of industries which are converging around sports to bring about a transformation to how we play, watch, and consume the content created by these remarkable past times.

Looking beyond sport is crucial to help us make sense of the changes happening within it, but also to help us figure out how best to respond.

We need to notice how the rise of esports is leading architecture firms to reimagine the physical spaces in which competitions take place and how this may have an impact on the approach to stadia design more widely.

We need to appreciate how gaming stations at football arenas are transforming the live viewing experience of spectators and how this may be affecting family interactions at the event.

And we need to appreciate how this has been happening already for quite some time

Already, gaming is part of premium hospitality packages.

Manchester City website 2019

The acceleration of a series of crucial technological platforms in the last decade provide helpful insights into why we find ourselves at this crucial point, but also signpost us to their development.

While predicting the long term consequences of these changes is always a risky business, there are some constants we can look to, to make sense of what the next decade may be like.

These images of future cities, the places in which our lives are played out, are born from the imaginations of science fiction writers, artists, architects, but also place makers, locations of remarkable ambition which have, for better or worse, transformed our landscapes. And we see how sports have responded

For over a century, the elite sports world has been a playground for some of the world’s most experimental technologies and things continue to surprise, creating an appreciation for how much can still be transformed.

Television is moving into a new era, challenged by mobile to reinvent itself, as we see in such examples as this recent launch from Alibaba and Intel, working with company Wrnch to bring live data tracking and visualisations to sports broadcasters.

There is no end point to this in sight, but figuring out where this kind of work happens within your organization is becoming a more pressing need.

If your company does not have an esport strategy, an AI utilisation methodology, an eye on the changing habits of media content consumption, or an innovation plan that takes the best innovations from the Internet of Things, then there’s much work to be done.

But luckily, there are lots of people keen to help. Lots of patents worth exploring, lots of ideas ripe for investment, and lots people willing to experiment.

So, despite the divisions between us on technology, find space to make technological investment a playful enterprise, aligned with wider ambitions we have for humanity.

If we keep these two element in mind, playfulness and social mobility, then we have a much better chance of ensuring that sport’s future is secured.

Thanks very much.


where the future is written

Professor Andy Miah

Written by

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman



where the future is written