The Cyborg with a Mean Curved Ball

Robotic hands are already doing amazing things. (via Shadow Robot Company)

Robotic hands are already doing amazing things. (via Shadow Robot Company)

The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that man may become robots.” — Erich Fromm

It sounds like something out of an old Ridley Scott movie, but robotic limbs and wearable technologies are a part of the world we live in. They haven’t come close to reaching their full potential. However, someday — maybe someday soon — a cybernetic revolution will confront not only America’s pastime, but the whole world through.

Baseball has already begun to embrace the ubiquity of new tech, as Jesse Wolfersburger pointed out in part one of his look at the future of the game. At the moment, cheap and easily produced sensors are leading the technological charge into baseball in the form of swing trackers and pitching sleeves. These devices pass data along to the user’s phone or computer for analysis. That information can make a player better, sure. But they just provide information. They don’t physically improve the user.

Not yet, anyway.

Mind-controlled (or myoelectric) robotic limbs are slowly catching up to the real thing, and they will inevitably eclipse nature due to the corporeal limitations of humanity.

Presently, robotic limbs have reached the point to which they can respond to nerve endings and send messages back to the brain, effectively giving users a sense of touch through the prosthetic and allowing them to control limbs with their thoughts. That is some genuine ghost-in-the-machine-sorta God-play. If science can literally reach into our biology and improve it, what’s next? And where does it stop?

The thought-tangling advancements in the field of robotics might not be news to you if you keep up with the robotics industry, but for many, these astonishing innovations are happening somewhere in the background.

It won’t be that way for long.

Science is well on its way to surpassing its human actors. A pair of robotic arms developed by scientists at the British robotics company Shadow Robot Company—composed of 24 motors, 26 micro-controllers, and 129 sensors — has already prepared a meal that met Michelin standards. Sorry, Robert Irvine. No amount of delt reps can save you now.

Soon, it seems robotic limbs will clearly outclass their biological predecessors — and supplemental accouterments, like wearable technology, will magnify our natural abilities beyond our (currently unadorned) imaginations. Artificial limbs and wearable technology will eventually cause baseball to have to decide whether to allow such advancements to enter the game — as it has with instant replay and might someday consider in regard to an automated strike zone. It’s quite a jump from replay to all-out RoboBall, but a slippery slope starts at 181 degrees, right?

This stuff won’t be limited to the replacement of limbs, either. People are working on nueroprosthetics, 3D-printed designer organs, and probably a bunch of really cool/weird stuff that they won’t even tell us about yet. Like microwave vision or something.

Robotic limbs could easily become elective procedures in the near future. If you could have a better arm, wouldn’t you want it? If you could access streaming data during a game (tendencies, probability, trajectories, routes) through a wearable device (like Google Glass or some future iteration of it) wouldn’t you want to?

If science can produce a better class of human beings, shouldn’t it be allowed to?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

From the beginning — an abacus on a ring in 18th century Qing dynasty — to the still ephemeral advancements of the future, wearable technologies have been a part of human history.

But soon, the era of unmechanized human beings will be a thing of the past.

This revolution might seem like a part of the distant future, but the advancements currently happening on the fringes of science will soon be a part of our everyday lives — as soon as the executive class finds a way to monetize them.

Concepts like ubiquitous computing, electronic textiles, myoelectric (body-powered) prosthetic arms, microprocessor-controlled knees, osseointegration, and nueroprosthetics all sound like fictional gibberish on the cutting room floor at LucasFilms.

They are far from gibberish.

One example of osseointegration, for example, is a concept referred to as “Eyeborgs.” It works with a “head-mounted antenna that senses the colors directly in front of a person, and converts them in real-time into sound waves through bone conduction,” says Alfredo M. Ronchi in his book about cultural content in the digital age.

Instructors and athletes around the world are already using wearable sensors to analyze technique. Most of them rely on accelerometers and gyroscopes, have their own apps, and can “sense” movements within a few miles per hour and a few degrees.

Examples of these seemingly unfathomable technologies are as profuse as they are obscure. A list of all of these types of advancements could fill volumes — evidence that change is coming. Fast. Inhumanly fast.

Apparently, we need to begin familiarizing ourselves with the idea of transhumanism.

In case you’re not familiar, the Humanity+ definition of transhunmanism is “a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.” Some will — and already do — oppose the idea of transhumanism. And some in that group may even believe themselves to be socially and/or politically progressive, but at what point does a progressive mentality — unfettered by any form of conservatism — become reckless?

Is pining for the old days of the game — before television, before replay, before robotics — an example of the notion that progress is not always the best course of action?

The future has some pretty interesting debates in store for us. And the results of those debates, which will obviously be decided by the world at large rather than by baseball alone, will be produced by these two sides. As with anything else, conservatism and progressivism will be the competing forces in the debate. But when it comes to the future of technology, many people could find themselves questioning their beliefs.

If you consider yourself a progressive, the very thought of embracing even a modicum of the reactionary ethos might cause you to be physically ill, but is a hesitant moment before entering a strange, new future — at its core — a reactionary moment? Do you really want to run into the nearest laboratory and plug in your entire nervous system into the Internet?

If you lean toward conservatism, you may be thinking Hey, I already feel funny about watching Andy Griffith on the Idiot Box and now you wanna put the durn thing inside my head?!? But then again, won’t you wonder about the possibilities?

It might sound silly to view these fundamental and existential questions through the lens of a game. It might, because it is silly in many ways, but it’s also an easy way to soften the concepts and provide real-world examples of how the future might be different and what questions might arise when those days come.

That, and baseball has dingers, whereas the rest of life does not.

Candy Cummings’ introduction of the Curved Ball in 1867 caused a reactionary response by some, which seems absurd at this point. Coming from a fundamental dedication to contemporarily dominant values, some were hesitant to embrace deception. Now, it is perhaps the single most important part of a pitcher’s approach—and no one sees it as a negative reflection on the pitcher’s character.

Eventually, the hesitation that preceded defensive shifts, instant replay and manager challenges, PITCHf/x, MLB Advanced Media, and analytics in general might be viewed with the same post hoc jocularity.

In the past, reactionary opposition to new ideas might have been the norm for much longer than it is allowed to be in the present. A smirk-inspiring quote from Ken Burns’ Baseball might be indicative of those sentiments.

I heard that this year we at Harvard won the base ball championship because we have a pitcher who has a fine curve ball. I am further instructed that the purpose of the curve ball is to deliberately deceive the batter. Harvard is not in the business of teaching deception.” — Charles Eliot, President of Harvard College

Now, opposition to new ideas seems to be met with criticism much more quickly.

When someone in the media questions the validity of analytics, the modern baseball community often offers a swift response.

Will things be the same way when reactionaries around the game oppose wearable technologies and the introduction of robotics into the game?

If baseball allows robotics and other technologies into the game, the parallels to the current view of analytics won’t end with the debate. For example, the Dodgers might have the best tech department in the game and perhaps some of the less wealthy, more traditional teams will skimp on such extravagances. (Looking at you, Philadelphia.) The differences in philosophy would likely be much more evident on the field with robotics than they are with analytics, but the story lines could play out quite similarly. Maybe amputation is the new market inefficiency.

This also serves as a more universal example of the potential dangers of cybernetics. The growing gap between the super-rich and the poor could be accentuated — and eventually defined — by advancements in cybernetics, designer genes, and other currently only imaginable progressions. The rich could eventually become literally better than the poor, instead of just thinking they are. It would be a nightmare in the real world, and just kind of a bummer in baseball.

This also leads to the question of whether advanced technologies such as these would be regulated by the Commissioner’s Office to keep the playing field even or if richer teams would have be allowed to have much, much better tech. Would each club be responsible for developing its own? Would tech be subject to the same rules that have attempted to even the playing field via revenue-sharing?

A game of cyborgs.

Optical helmet-mounted displays.

Nanofiber uniforms.

Indestructable, myoelectric elbows.

Biomedically-engineered nueroprostethics that could allow players to stream scouting information and data intangibly between pitches.

Infinitely strong and impossibly flexible pitching hands.

Now, it might sound like I’m just making stuff up, but then again, it’s hard not to think about Jim Abbott. A superior robotic hand is only a few years—okay, maybe decades—away, but if these technological advancements had happened a few decades earlier, Abbott might have been playing with a glove fitted for a robotic hand.

His story is amazing, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been as incredible if he’d had the help of science. And it’s likely he wouldn’t have been viewed the same way if he had used a robotic prosthetic — even if it wasn’t clearly superior to a human hand. Anytime he used it to make a play, someone somewhere would cry foul. He might have even been considered a villain or a cheater in some circles … but could you really blame him for wanting a new — or a better — hand?

While it’s interesting to dream about the future and the past, bodily upgrades are a thing of the present. In May, fighter Bandasak Chaiyasan was suspended by the World Muay Thai Council for having illegal titanium implants in his shins. The implants helped him KO his opponent with a kick to the head. Imagine that.

How many games would Brian Matusz or Will Smith have been suspended if they had used pine tar-secreting finger prosthetics instead of just rubbing the stuff on their arms where everybody could see it?

And of course, Oscar Pistorius was the first major figure in this debate. Before him, no prosthetic could have even approached the functionality necessary to compete in a sporting event of any kind, let alone the Olympics. Many claimed that Pistorius gained an unfair advantage by using prosthetic foot replacements called Flex-Foot Cheetah. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced a new rule banning “technical device(s)” like Pistorius’ blade runners.

Pistorius disputed the ruling, but was not allowed to compete in the Olympics. His life after attempting to qualify for the Olympics towers over the debate surrounding prosthetics, however. Pistorius’ personal life might have muddied the waters of prosthetics in sports to some extent, but eventually debate and questions surrounding this issue will come raging back into the forefront.

Will Pistorius’ actions outside the sports world nudge the future of the debate in a different direction? Was the decision to disallow him from Olympic competition a foundation of conservatism that will dominate the issue for the foreseeable future? Or will these evolutions be a comical footnote in the history of the game of the game, like the now-obsolete opposition to Cummings’ Curved Ball or the opposition to replay and perhaps automated strike zones may become in the not-to-distant future?

If these advancements are banned, won’t we wonder?

If you could have an elective surgery to replace your clunky biological body parts with superior and rapidly improving mechanical parts, would you sign up for elective amputation? Would it even be legal? If it was, but only for those who needed it, would people begin lopping off their own limbs? Pitchers are already considering preemptive Tommy John surgery. If science can mend a severed tendon, why can’t it mend a severed arm?

It’s difficult to project the dawn of the robotic era in baseball. It’s definitely a decade or two away. However, there are other advancements that are at the doorstep of the game today. Robot umps or automated strike zones, for example, are hotly debated around the game. Is the removal of the human element a slippery slope that will eventually lead to a bunch of robots taking the field?

It would also seem that these automatons would be right at home in the modern disposition of the game — at least as far as the front offices are concerned. “It’s just business”-style contract negotiations are a concept that unapologetically dehumanizes all parties and causes players and teams to make decisions not only based on their current financial situation, but for the evolution of labor relations between the two parties in general. Even if a player or a team would like to make a humanistic financial decision, the idea is frowned upon by the rest of the industry because it is a shoe in the gears of the overall marketplace of the game.

A few current examples would be Alex Gordon’s impending free agency, the Dodgers’ and Marlins’ bald-faced attempt to secure value in strongarming Dan Haren into retirement, and, of course, Josh Hamilton’s brief departure from Texas — the place he calls home.

Robots wouldn’t care if they were traded. And they’d only have to be invested in occasionally for production and maintenance. Early on, they might not be competitive with the cost of player salaries, but as technology has shown us over and over again, production gets much easier after the first few generations of an idea navigate the real world.

Things may never reach that point, but the potential for robotics to penetrate the world of sports may exist in the not-too-distant future. Whether people allow technology to reach that potential remains to be seen.

Of course, the idea that optimally flexible, impossibly strong automatons with invariably perfect technique will overtake humans completely is putting the cart pretty far ahead of the horse. Naturally, any significant change in the game will come incrementally, if at all. But it’s still pretty entertaining to try to envision what the future could — very realistically — hold.

Maybe all of this sounds like a corny, Starship Troopers-universe pipe dream right now, but the future will decidedly look different. The possibilities may not have come into focus, but when they do, won’t we wonder what enhanced human beings can do in sports?

In this brave new world, would there be two different versions of baseball? Super Robo-ball and The Old Game? Will baseball as we know it — or as we knew it a few years ago — be pushed aside into the arena of Civil War reenactments and museums by The New Game?

Many ethical questions arise when we start daydreaming about potential futures. Not just in sports, but in everything. What happens when technology eclipses its designers?

If it is banned or unofficially shunned, won’t we wonder? Won’t we covet the possibilities? And if these new, rapidly sharpening technologies are embraced, will the cybernetic game seem more or less authentic? Does whittling away at the human element of the game defeat the very purpose of sports?

Baseball is pregnant with a robotic embryo. The future — in which it is miscarried or allowed to flourish — is not yet written, but it will be sooner than we think.

References & Resources

Tyler Drenon is a freelance writer and graphic designer living in the southwest corner of Missouri. He has written for VICE, The Classical and SB Nation. Follow him on twitter @basteball.
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Jim S.
8 years ago

You wrote: “Robots wouldn’t care if they were traded.” Perhaps. But that may be true only of the earlier models.

Paul Swydanmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Perhaps someone can recut the ending of T2 to Arnold choosing the liquid steel instead of being traded to the Yankees.

Bryan Cole
8 years ago

I’m picturing the IOC banning those sorts of prosthetics…and then some Bill Veeck type setting up a rival competition where that sort of thing is encouraged, like the SNL skit about the all-steroid Olympics.

Michael Bacon
8 years ago

Ever since I was a young boy,
I’ve played baseball.
From Chicago down to Houston
I must have played them all.
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any park with baseball…
That deaf dumb and blind cyborg
Sure throws a mean curveball!

With apologies to The Who

8 years ago

I’ll just leave this here:

Tyler Drenon
8 years ago
Reply to  Whee


Yehoshua Friedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Whee

I really don’t like this one. It is way beyond the original idea of baseball. I don’t like fights.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

Sort of tangentially, I’ve often wondered about the possibility of replacing human players entirely with robots. Would we care as long as they were competitive? Would we still root for teams composed of non-humans? Would we care about sports if they were played by robots? I wonder about this because, in fact, we often look at players as robots. We don’t know them as human and, really, only care about how they perform.

Rick Kallenbach
8 years ago

I t wasn’t baseball, but Carl Beshear, jr., the U.S. Navy’s first black diver, had part of his left leg electively amputated, over the objections of many, so that he could continue his career as a Navy diver. This was, oh, 50 or so years ago.