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November 10, 2022

When AI plays football, sport is just part of the GOOAALL!

As AI companies seek to solve ‘the beautiful game,’ the lessons learned have broader implications for business decision making.

In the news

The 2022 FIFA World Cup will soon be under way, thrilling football fans worldwide. What most of the billions of global spectators may not realize is—as with seemingly every other aspect of life—artificial intelligence (AI) is already playing a role in the sport.

AI firms, including DeepMind, are working on AI playing football by training AI-driven players to become competent footballers. But as they make strides in “solving” football with AI, the lessons they learn will find myriad other applications. As this Wired piece notes, AI “could one day help robots to move around our world in more natural, more human ways.”

We may be a few years—OK, decades—away from “a robot soccer team which beats the human world champion team” (the actual, stated goal of the RoboCup Federation). But the progress being made in AI playing football is both fascinating and genuine. DeepMind’s simulated squad was taught to “maximize several environment rewards,” researchers note in a newly published paper, imitating football skills if doing so boosted their performance.

The result? “A team of coordinated humanoid football players that exhibit complex behavior at different scales … including those used in real-world sport analytics.”

The Cognizant take

Applying AI to playing football is an apt illustration of the way businesses seek to speed and improve their decision-making, as if acting on intuition. Sport presents a major opportunity to advance this concept: When you see an athlete acting on intuition, much of what you’re watching is the application of every bit of “data” they’ve gathered throughout their career, and even their life, as they apply it in the moment, making a split-second choice that will or will not propel their team to victory.

The first step in making decisions is having relevant information, but some decisions must be made very quickly, indeed. In humans, such decisions are made with what psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls our mental “System 1,” which “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort" (as opposed to “System 2,” which requires significant mental effort). System 1-governed decisions are triggered either by innate skills or by capabilities developed through practice.

Most of what we call intuition, says Herbert A. Simon, another Economics Laureate, is “nothing more and nothing less than recognition” of our accumulated experiences.

With the right data, analytics and leadership, organizations can perform more like the fortunate humans who bring expert thinking to their System 1-driven actions, improving both the speed and the accuracy of their decision-making—not unlike football star Lionel Messi “feeling”—just before anyone else—where the ball will land.

Our research shows 80% of companies struggle to use AI to improve decisions. As to the remaining 20%, the AI leaders—well, they’re getting a penalty kick.

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