Testing Times – Why Robots Are Stumped By Cricket

It is entirely possible that 2015 will come to be known as the ‘Year of the Robot.’ Every week, it seems, another Doctor Who storyline makes its way into the mainstream news bulletins: man manoeuvres mechanical arm with his mind; Tokyo department store customers welcomed by cyborg shop assistant; robot cars to rule our roads. Once upon a time the Daleks and Cybermen knew their place – firmly within the realms of science fiction. Not any more. The robots are coming, and coming fast.

It is hardly surprising that this robotic revolution is in full swing in tech-obsessed Japan. Prime Minister Abe is trying to jumpstart Japan’s economy with a broad swathe of ambitious initiatives: the robotics industry represents a potentially profitable escape-route from economic decline and might even help to address the issue of a rapidly aging work-force. In addition to his plan to host an international robotics competition, Abe has expressed support for a Robot Olympics and has said that he intends to create a task force to examine ways in which Japan could triple the size of its robotics industry from its current 600 billion yen to 2.4 trillion.

We want to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy. We would like to set up a council to make a robotic revolution a reality in order to aid Japan’s growth.

Although Japan may be leading the way, it is far from being the only country aiming to push forward into hitherto unexplored technological territory. Recently re-elected UK Prime Minister David Cameron has promised significant investment in cutting-edge technologies, including robotics and autonomous systems, while President Obama’s National Robotics Initiative is already in its sixth year.

All over the world and in almost every sphere of human endeavour, technological progress is disrupting the status quo. As the robots surge ahead there are vulnerable humans being left behind – and soon many more could be left trailing in their wake. It is clearly a good time to possess higher level skills and the benefits of a good education have never been more evident: anyone so blessed can still ride the wave, while others are already in danger of being swept away. But robots are learning new skills at an extraordinary rate, and that rate shows no sign of slowing.

It has become something of a cliché to tell young people that many of them will find jobs that do not yet exist; perhaps it is time to make it very clear to them that many of those that do exist have a very limited life-span – including some at the higher end of the skill spectrum. This is what Thomas H Davenport and Helen Kirby have to say about the situation in the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review:

Suddenly, it seems, people in all walks of life are becoming very concerned about advancing automation. And they should be: Unless we find as many tasks to give humans as we find to take away from them, all the social and psychological ills of joblessness will grow, from economic recession to youth unemployment to individual crises of identity. That’s especially true now that automation is coming to knowledge work, in the form of artificial intelligence. Knowledge work—which we’ll define loosely as work that is more mental than manual, involves consequential decision making, and has traditionally required a college education—accounts for a large proportion of jobs in today’s mature economies. It is the high ground to which humanity has retreated as machines have taken over less cognitively challenging work. But in the very foreseeable future, as the Gartner analyst Nigel Rayner says, “Many of the things executives do today will be automated.”

What does this mean for our schools? Titanium teachers with 360 degree vision who never forget to set homework and can’t see the point of holidays? Identi-kit Headmaster holograms beamed in to schools around the world armed with all the algorithms for successful school leadership? One day perhaps, but not just yet. More pressing is the need to examine what we teach today to equip young people with the skills and attributes they will need tomorrow.

I think I have the answer – cricket!

It may seem counter-intuitive to claim that an arcane game ‘invented’ in the bucolic world of pre-industrial revolution England should hold the key to the development of an educational model to carry us through the 21st Century and beyond. After all, this is a pastime that has famously confused and bewildered even the most ardent sports fan in so many parts of the world. Can it really go on for five days and still not result in a win for anyone? There’s a silly mid-on and a long leg, and you can bowl a maiden over? You can’t be serious! I admit that something of a leap of faith might be required here but please bear with me.

Consider for a moment some of the higher-order skills universally acknowledged as offering mere humans an edge over our computerised counterparts. Robots are at their best when working within a narrow pre-defined frame of reference. Think about those automotive assembly lines: rows of robotic arms carrying out quite complex but repetitive tasks accurately, tirelessly, perfectly…over and…over and…over again. We might not be able to compete in situations like these, but when we are required to respond to a wide range of very different circumstances human beings can hold their own. Stop the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball, hit the ball – and carry out all of these actions in reaction to an almost infinite set of variables including trajectory, velocity and your position in relation to your team-mates and the opposition. You can see where the average Dalek might have problems even if it possessed arms.

Then there is the central paradox of the game: it is both a team sport and a supreme test of the individual. The successful cricketer must be able to build relationships and work closely in partnership with those around him and at the same time possess the ability to focus with determined selfish intensity on a range of tasks specifically allocated to him. A batsman may be asked to concentrate for hours on end as ball after ball rains down upon him, but he must also be aware of his partner at the other end; a slip fielder must wait patiently for the catch that may come his way one ball in every hundred, but when it does come his reaction must take into account the position of his wicket-keeper or the slip outside him.

Think too about creativity or originality – the ability to shock or surprise. Any good batsman, human or robot, will learn to deal with even the best of bowlers if exactly the same ball is bowled every time. He/she/it might even develop a range of responses to deal with a number of different deliveries but it is the human being who is best equipped both to bowl the surprise ball and to react to it. When a wily bowler finds a way of stifling the scoring of a prolific batsman, history tells us that the talented player will come up with something original to redress the balance – the reverse sweep* perhaps; similarly, when a brilliant batsman makes scoring look easy another talented player will come up with something different to cut him down to size – think of the doosra.**

Then, of course, there is the captain who must do all of these things and at the same time cast an all-seeing eye over the bigger picture of the game as a whole and come up with a strategy to turn things to his team’s advantage – all the while learning from his mistakes as he grows in experience.

Flexibility of mind and body, and a willingness to learn new skills; the ability to collaborate and to form mutually beneficial relationships; focus, determination and resilience; creativity and the confidence to do something different; imagination and the vision to think strategically – this reads like a list of those 21st Century Skills that some educators have been waxing lyrical about since the Sinclair ZX Spectrum came on the scene. I may not be entirely serious when I say that cricket is mankind’s secret weapon in our race with the robots but at least it gives grounds for optimism – and it affords me some solace to know that it will be a very long time before any digitised mechanical marvel has its name carved on to the honours boards at Lords.

I leave you with the words of one of the most exciting cricket captains I ever had the pleasure of watching, the great West Indian all-rounder Gary Sobers:

A captain has to be about half a dozen men all rolled into one. He has to have the nerve of a gambler, the poise of a financier, the human understanding of a psychologist, ten years’ more cricket knowledge than he can ever possess, and the patience of a saint.

When they make a robot that can do all that – and bat, bowl and field with the grace, power and enthusiasm that Sobers brought to the game – it will be time to worry!

*Reverse sweep: cricket stroke ‘invented’ by Pakistani batsman, Hanif Mohammad

** Doosra: delivery ‘invented’ by Pakistani bowler Saqlain Mushtaq – it means ‘other one’ in Urdu.

Photo credits:

Daleks in Colour – BBC

Japanese Female Robot – Koji Sasahara

Japanese Teacher Robot – Getty Images

Gary Sobers – PA Photos

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