Sports in the fourth industrial revolution

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When I was a teenager, my father was a diehard supporter of Moroka Swallows Football Club. I was accustomed to him spoiling me with those bright maroon shirts that were emblazoned with the message, “Don’t follow me follow the birds”. Why anyone should follow the birds instead of their hearts remain a mystery to me. I so much hated those maroon shirts that I stayed away from sports activities completely. Later on when I was an undergraduate student studying mechanical engineering in the USA, I was compelled to take two sports classes. I took the easy way out and chose body conditioning and bowling.

In medical research, there is a well-established relationship between sports and health wellness. Sports have been proven to reduce stress and improve mental well-being. Team sports improve social skills and build the culture of cooperation and leadership, thus improving the emotional intelligence of people. Emotional intelligence is a measure of how emotionally matured the individual is, and it has been proven to be a better predictor of success than intellectual intelligence which is called IQ. Studies in the USA demonstrate that 95% of the chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 companies played competitive sports in college. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was a captain of the school fencing team, and the CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella played cricket, to name a few.

The company Discovery in its wellness program incentivises its customers to be physically active. This is because there is a link between physical activity and medical aid claims. Studies have shown that the more physically active the person is the lower is the medical aid claims. So, incentivising customers of a medical insurance company to be active is a good economic decision. The importance of physical activity even extends to the workforce. The more physically active the employees are, the more productive they perform.

Nobel Prize Winner Richard Thaler and Cas Sunstein, in their classic book, Nudges, write about a concept called a nudge, which they describe as a positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions which are intended to incentivise people to behave in a certain way without forcing them. The concept of a nudge is so powerful that the former American President Barack Obama and former British Prime Minister David Cameron employed nudges to advance their domestic agenda. Nudges have been used to make people save more, eat healthy, drive responsibly etc. As a leader of a university, in my capacity as a Vice-Chancellor, I need to identify nudges that will keep students and staff physically and mentally active as well as healthy.

Last week I attended the International University Sports Federation (FISU) Winter Games in Siberia, Russia. FISU is an organisation that organises and promotes university sports. I went there as a representative of the African universities on the FISU Academic Advisory Board. I was requested to give a presentation on innovation around sports. One of the industries that has not been fully developed is the sports technology industry. Little research is conducted around sports technology and much of the equipment we use in South Africa are imported from overseas. The solution that both industries and universities should identify is how South Africa can develop a manufacturing industry around sports technology.

The era we are living in is called the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). This revolution is merging the digital, physical and biological spheres and, therefore, is well posed to revolutionise sports technology. The data that we are collecting as we walk, exercise, run etc. have huge value and artificial intelligence (AI) technology can be able to help us unlock that value. AI is a technology that brings intelligence into machines. In many applications, AI technology is able to outperform a human being. As an example, the World Chess Champion is an AI machine and not a human being. The ability to collect data and link these to the physical well-being of people has multiple functions.

One example of application of AI to sports, which we use at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), include a wearable performance monitoring system which has a compression shirt and measures heart rate, breathing rate, heart rate variability, posture and impact. This device is able to alert the user if they have exercised beyond safety zone and thus reduces injures, optimises performance, facilitates return-to-play as well as monitors player movements during training and matches. The collected data is then analysed using AI to create a system that is able to recommend best exercises for a given profile of a person.

Another application of AI in sports is a project at UJ where we study the relationship between the effectiveness of group exercise class and the background music. The results of this project is a device where a particular music is played when a particular exercise is performed. Exercise is also vital for rehabilitation purpose. For example, in our work on the relationship between movements of body parts and the activities of the brain, Abdul-Khaliq Mohamed my former master students used AI to map movements of body parts and activities of the brain. We can use this work when a patient suffers brain damage usually through a stroke, and based on the location of the damage in the brain a specific exercise, which entails movement of specific body parts, in order to heal the brain damage.

The 4IR is changing the world of work. Machines will increasingly do much of the work that is done by people. Jobs will undergo three transformations. First, some jobs will disappear. One of the jobs that has disappeared in the last 50 years is the elevator minder, which has been replaced by a self-serving system where a user inputs the floor they are going to. The second transformation is that some jobs will change. Today we have AI systems that can diagnose diseases better than machines. In this regard, doctors’ jobs will change to include the intensive use of technology. The third transformation of jobs is the emergence of new jobs. For example, we now have jobs such as Data Analyst that did not exist in the third industrial revolution. The jobs that will survive are jobs that have a human touch and sports plays a big part in this.

According to the World Economic Forum, the top ten skills that will be required in the 4IR include people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision making and cognitive flexibility. Many of these skills are difficult to embed into the curricula and sports can play a big part in growing these skills. For example, team sports require players to coordinate with others and manage people. The concept of winning and losing, which is a fundamental part of competitive sport, develops emotional intelligence. The change of a team strategy midway through a game develops cognitive flexibility as well as judgement and decision-making.

Given all these benefits of sports in wellness, social skills and rehabilitation, how do we nudge discouraged athletes like me who was discouraged by maroon shirts to start exercising? Firstly, we should embed into our university curricula sports as a compulsory subject for all the students. This course should not be credit bearing but should be a requirement for a student to proceed to the following year. Secondly, universities should have health walks where both staff and students participate and perhaps prizes be given to those who complete these walks. Thirdly, universities should invest into sports facilities. One of the most visible signs of excellent universities is their sports facilities. This is because there is clear link between physical vitality and educational outcomes.

Professor Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and author of the book Handbook of Machine Learning.