Alan Zendell, July 21, 2019
As despicable as Donald Trump’s latest round of racist tweets were, and even more so the sound of 45,000 people at his North Carolina rally parroting his “send them back” chant, it’s Sunday, and I’d rather write about something that’s more fun. So I’m officially calling a time out, which segues nicely into today’s subject.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons and the rise of terrorism gave birth to the modern sub-genre of Dystopian fiction. My 2012 novel, The Portal, was one such, set a hundred years from now in an America hurt by reckless economic policies, misguided military adventures, and isolationism. But unlike the future I fear Trumpism portends, all is not misery and desolation in The Portal. Boys and girls still fall in love, (it’s basically a love story,) and America’s pastime is healthier than ever, serving as a welcome distraction for the downtrodden masses.
22nd century baseball would have evolved considerably from what we know today, and I predicted that robot umpires would be calling balls and strikes. Yesterday, my dream came to fruition. For the first time, a professional baseball game used a robot equipped with 3-D Doppler Radar instead of a live umpire to police the strike zone. I wish I were as successful at predicting political outcomes.
I didn’t get it exactly right, but close enough. In The Portal, a “thin, rubberized home plate lies atop the umpire, an inset metal box with identical dimensions. It works by scanning a batter to create a three-dimensional strike zone as a hologram shimmering in the air. Microchips embedded in the artificial rawhide that covers the ball emit cold sparks whenever the ball intersects the strike zone.” I thought that was pretty cool. You can’t argue with sparks flying through the air, and they’re not easily offended.
The robot umpire that called balls and strikes in the Atlantic League All-Star game in York, PA also used an electronic box to track the paths of pitched balls. But rather than being embedded beneath home plate, it was attached to the roof of the stadium. It’s part of the same Trackman radar system that has been tracking home runs, pitch speeds, and batted ball speeds for the last few seasons.
In York, a human umpire with an iPod earbud stood behind home plate calling each pitch based on what the Trackman system whispered in his ear. Remarkably, in the opinion of players and coaches on both sides, the robot umpire was nearly perfect except for one called third strike. Counter to my expectation, despite the futility of arguing with a robot, one of the coaches, former New York Mets pitcher Frank Viola, got into a donnybrook over the close call and was ejected from the game. No, not by the robot.
The human umpire said he’d have called it a ball, but acknowledged that based on its programming, the robot umpire technically got it right, which raises an interesting question that will have to be resolved before Major League Baseball adopts the robot umpire. But there’s no doubt that if you’re looking for something optimistic to look forward to, baseball’s future will be faster games with consistent strike zones – a win-win for everyone.
It will require some adaptation by players, because a “perfect” umpire raises as many questions as it resolves. A robot umpire uses geometric algorithms to evaluate pitches. Its strike zone is a rectangular prism (a three-dimensional rectangle) customized for each batter’s physical characteristics. And therein lies the potential problem, because the robot umpire calls a pitch a strike if it barely grazes one corner of its virtual strike zone, even if it bounces before it reaches the catcher. A human umpire moderates the physical evidence with a sense of whether the pitch is hittable.
It’s not nearly as earth-shaking a problem as pondering a future that includes four more years of Trump, but it’s a lot more fun to contemplate. The issue, as the visionary author Neal Stephenson discusses in his latest novel, Fall, is that any artificial intelligence (as opposed to Fake News) system makes some decisions better and faster than a human brain, but there are many things humans do better. AI systems and robot umpires both need a way to simulate the subjective inputs that only a human is capable of.
Stephenson imagines using realistic video games to crowd source how real humans would make the kinds of close calls an umpire will have to make, to teach the robot what it can’t learn on its own. Isn’t that a lot more fun than anticipating a possible Trump victory in 2020?
I’m tempted to withdraw inside my baseball cocoon every day, but I still have a pressing question. How do you ask a robot to call time out?