Sports researchers share new technology – until medals are on the line

Photo: Asger Røjle

Toshie Takahashi from the School of Culture, Media and Society at the Wasada University speaking on AI and robotics in relation to the 2020 Olympics. Photo: Asger Røjle

Artificial intelligence is gaining momentum in sports science and in society as a whole. At a recent conference in Tokyo, researchers and experts discussed how the Olympic Games in Tokyo will put to the test innovative ways of hosting a mega-sporting event.

Sport represents a huge market opportunity for new technologies. Companies are developing computers that can measure effects of training intensity on athlete performance. Robots are now designed to support injuries incurred by athletes during training and events. Every day, at sports universities around the world, experts are making discoveries in collaboration with private companies and professional athletes.

If shared, the discoveries made by experts at sports universities may also prove beneficial to the wider health sector. However, new knowledge is not always shared with other sectors of society.

“We may cooperate on lower levels – as long as it concerns grassroots sports,” said professor, Massimiliano Zecca at a Japanese-Italian conference on sport science and robotics taking place in Tokyo this month.

“However, as soon as gold medals are at stake everything becomes much more secretive. It is a shame, because it makes sharing knowledge and cooperation impossible,” explained Zecca, who has spent several years as a researcher at the Center for Advanced Biomedical Sciences (TWIns), Waseda University in Tokyo. Today, Zecca works as a professor in health technology at the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in the UK.

If one day, professor Zecca should be lucky enough to invent a new technology that could significantly increase the chances of winning medals, British athletes – and only British – would benefit. That is the primary purpose of the funding granted to the Loughborough institute that was established in relation to the 2012 London Games. Those are the terms.

Knowledge sharing and data collection
The theme of the Tokyo conference was ’robotics and sport science’ and included discussions that very openly shared knowledge about the meticulous research that has been done on Italian Serie A footballers’ balance, speed and stamina. Many of the footballers examined are no longer at the height of their career as they were several years ago when the data was collected – science takes time.

Professor Zecca pointed to a big dilemma in the way research in sports technology is carried out.

”The problem is,” he said, “that we are too reliant on interviews with the athletes themselves about how they experience the new technology. That is not possible. You cannot trust people’s own assessment.”

Professor Zecca calls this type of answers ‘ghost answers’.

“It would be better to not have this information. It does not lead us in the right direction.”

According to professor Zecca, more resources are needed to develop objective measuring instruments and ways to monitor test persons that can provide us with data about what happens when a professional athlete uses this or that new technology. Simple data and data collection is necessary in order to secure reliable and consistent results.

”Do it as simple as possible,” was the overall advice from professor Zecca, who said that very simple robots measuring footballers, golfers and tennis players can provide credible and comparable data. According to Zecca, this is the only competitive procedure. The more the computers are able to analyse complex connections in very simple programs, the more use we can make of the data.

Robitics used to improve public health
Looking at how to improve general health, professor Paolo Dario from the The BioRobotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy, said that ”a realistic target” could be to ensure that the drop in life quality that sets in towards the end of a life is sharp and short”.

In this particular area, Japan is a forerunner, with funds strategically allocated for the research and development of robotics for the use in the health care system of the elderly. This sector will inevitably grow in the years to come when a growing number of Japanese elderly will be in need of care from fewer and fewer younger and middle-aged fellow citizens.

Currently, the use of artificial intelligence is exploding in Japan in a number of surprising areas. One advanced example is the so-called exoskeletons capable of supporting physically impaired people. This research takes place in Japan, often in cooperation with the country’s own sports technology researchers. Present at the conference in Tokyo was associate professor Yuichi Kurita from the Biological System Engineering lab at the Hiroshima University.    

”It is not only people creating new tools. It is just as much tools creating new people,” he explained.

If a person, who is otherwise not capable of moving very much, has a tennis racquet in the living room and a tennis game on the computer, the person can have his or hers daily exercise thanks to an “exoskeleton”. The research by the Hiroshima lab has shown that an elderly person with a motor handicap, who through a four-year period succeeds in exercising daily, saves the health system $1000 per year.

”It is not only about prolonging people’s lives, it is about prolonging the healthy part of their lives,” Yuichi Kurita said.

Technological advances will be promoted through the 2020 Games
Contributions to the conference from Japanese researchers clearly demonstrated that the Japanese government intends to use the 2020 Tokyo Games to show off the advanced level of technological research that the nation has achieved. 

The 2020 organisers wish to introduce the many international visitors, athletes as well as spectators, to “the world’s most advanced environment for information and communication technology” during the Games.

Under the concept ‘smart city’, the Games will also be used to teach the Japanese population about the many possibilities the new technology offers with its artificial intelligence and many robotics.

One every-day example of these plans is the expected use of AI and robotics in facilitating communication between athletes with different languages and in between the foreign athletes and the Japanese hosts, said professor Toshie Takahashi from the School of Culture, Media and Society at the Wasada University, giving a keynote speech about the ‘Social Impact of AI/robots: contributions to Tokyo Olympics 2020 and after’.

Although mentioning several concrete examples, Toshie Takahashi’s presentation was mainly focused on how new and radically improved translation services on participants’ cell phones will be able to heighten communication during the Games.

This might not be sports technology per se but never the less it is an example of how modern technology can be decisive in helping to secure a hassle-free hosting of the Games while showcasing a practical use of artificial intelligence on a daily basis.

It will both ease the transportation around town for visitors because they will be able to communicate with local taxi drivers, ticket inspectors and service personnel as well as make locals more confident in the meeting with foreigners.

”This is important for us when opening up our country to the world. Usually, foreigners make us insecure because we do not know their language. But now, we can communicate with them and benefit from the communication ourselves. We do not have to be so shy,” said Takahashi.

Robotics could make people happier
According to Takahashi’s own research among Japanese urban youth, more than 50 percent of the youth in Japan expect the 2020 Tokyo Games – much like the 1956 Tokyo Games – to cause significant changes to Japanese society.

”The Japanese might be more open towards new types of robots than other nationalities, but we have to focus on developing robotics that are not only aimed at Japanese but at all human beings,” Takahashi encouraged the technological researchers in the room.

”We have to fill the gap between the social and natural sciences and develop robots for our common good. We have to discuss how we develop robots that can make our society more sustainable. Instead of focusing on the educational use of robotics, we should look more broadly at the use of them in our daily lives. I hope that robotics will make people happier in future.”

Her optimism was echoed by robot engineer Paolo Dario who said that "robots really can add to a relevant support in the completion of exercise programs and to people succeeding in achieving a healthy and active aging".


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