Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Bowled Over

January 3rd, 2011 · 6 Comments

Let’s begin the year by hailing the ingenuity of a man who has contributed much to both mathematics and Internet meme-ry: John Venn.

Venn is, of course, best known for concocting the elegant diagramming system that now bears his name. Aside from elucidating the fundamentals of logic for generations of schoolkids, Venn diagrams have also provided structure for countless middlebrow-brow jokes. For this achievement alone, Venn deserves a place in the organizational pantheon alongside Melvil Dewey and Edwin G. Seibels.

But Venn was far from a one-trick pony, nor one who confined his genius to the realm of the theoretical. He was also quite the engineer, and used his tinkering skills to create one of the earliest mechanical robots: a cricket bowling machine that was sort of the Deep Blue of its day and sport. The machine was rumored to have bested the top batsman on the Australian national team, largely because of the way it created baffling break.

What’s odd is that, despite the early hype over the machine’s ability to best human players, Venn’s cricket bowling contraption was quickly relegated to the status of training device—quite like the Jugs machines that now dominate the market. I, for one, would like to see a revival of the engineering race to design a machine capable of stumping the world’s best batsmen. I can only guess that this quest was abandoned once humans adjusted to the machines’ limited trickery. But I refuse to believe that machines can only triumph over humans in contests of mental acuity. At some point, the robots will prove that they can triumph in the athletic arena, too. How long will that take? The answer might depend on how much human competitors are willing to modify their bodies to keep their edge.


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    If the transhumanists have their way, not very long. I’ve read some discussions which made it clear that some people are rather enthusiastic about the idea of being able to enhance the physical abilities of their bodies. It’s a little tricky for me to understand on a personal level because I’d rather put in the work to generate improvement on my own, but the desire is definitely out there.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: The issue I’m most interested in right now is whether elite athletes will choose to undergo elective surgeries that could enhance their performance. I’d venture to say that surgery is inherently riskier than PED use these days, at least in the short term. So you could see some athletes whose careers are actually harmed by their decisions to put their otherwise healthy bodies under the knife. But many will feel compelled to do so in order to keep pace with their competitors.

  • scottstev


    I’d venture to say that almost all high-level athletes would take whatever legal means necessary to improve performance. I would look at current rates of Lasik surgery (I don’t know those rates, and they’re probably unknowable), but that is a good analogue for surgically enhancing performance legally with the risks being relatively known.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: One hundred percent agreed. No matter what you think of Floyd Landis, I think he was dead on with this quote:

    “I did what I did because that’s what we [cyclists] did and it was a choice I had to make after 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there, and that was a decision I had to make to make the next step. My choices were, do it and see if I can win, or don’t do it and I tell people I just don’t want to do that, and I decided to do it.”

    In other words, after you’ve dedicated your entire life to a sport, it’s very tough to take the moral high ground while PED users pass you by. There are no prizes for coming 24th.

    I do think it’ll be interesting, though, when some careers are ruined by surgeries much riskier than Lasik–for example, knee procedures.

  • yangshao

    also, i used to train with a jugs machine that launched soccer balls at goal. they help you master action much like rote learning of math or vocabulary. but they don’t teach you how to play ball any more than times tables make you a creative thinker…