Mark Stoneward accepted the invitation immediately. Then it took two weeks for his lawyers at the Football Association to check the contracts and non-disclosure agreements prepared by the AI research company. Stoneward arrived at the glass and steel building in London downtown. He signed in at a fully automated kiosk, and was then accompanied by a friendly security guard to the office of the CEO.
Denise Mirza and Stoneward had met at social events, but never had time to talk for a longer time. “Congratulations on the results of the World Cup!” Stoneward nodded, “Thank you.”
“You have performed better than most of our models have predicted. This was particularly due to your willingness to make strategic choices, where other associations would simply have told their players to do their best. I am very impressed.” She looked at Stoneward, trying to read his face.
Stoneward’s face didn’t move. He didn’t want to give away how much was planned, how much was luck. He knew these things travel fast, and every little bit he could keep secret gave his team an edge. Mirza smiled. She recognised that poker face. “We know how to develop a computer system that could help you with even better strategic decisions.”
Stoneward tried to keep his face unmoved, but his body turned to Mirza and his arms opened a bit wider. Mirza knew that he was interested.
“If our models are correct, we can develop an Artificial Intelligence that could help you discuss your plans, help you with making the right strategic decisions, and play through different scenarios. Such AIs are already used in board rooms, in medicine, to create new recipes for top restaurants, or training chess players.”
“What about the other teams?”
“Well, we were hoping to keep this exclusive for two or four years, to test and refine the methodology. We are not in a hurry. Our models give us an overwhelming probability to win both the European Championship and the World Cup in case you follow our advice.”
“For the European Championship?”
“No. To win both.”
Stoneward gasped. “That is… hard to believe.”
The CEO laughed. “It is good that you are sceptical. I also doubted these probabilities, but I had two teams double-check.”
“What is that advice?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know yet. We need to develop the AI first. But I wanted to be sure you are actually interested before we invest in it.”
“You already know how effective the system will be without even having developed it yet?”
She smiled. “Our own decision process is being guided by a similar AI. There are so many things we could be doing. So many possible things to work on and revolutionise. We have to decide how to spend our resources and our time wisely.”
“And you’d rather spend your time on football than on… I don’t know, healing cancer or making a product that makes tons of money?”
“Healing cancer is difficult and will take a long time. Regarding money… the biggest impediment to speeding up the impact of our work is currently not a lack of resources, but a lack of public and political goodwill. People are worried about what our technology can do, and parliament and the European Union are eager to throw more and more regulations at us. What we need is something that will make every voter in England fall in love with us. That will open up the room for us to move more freely.”
Stoneward smiled. “Winning the World Cup.”
She smiled. “Winning the World Cup.”
Three months later…
“So, how will this work? Do I, uhm, type something in a computer, or do we have to run some program and I enter possible players we are considering to select?”
Mirza laughed. “No, nothing that primitive. The AI already knows all of your players. In fact, it knows all professional players in the world. It has watched and analyzed every second of TV screening of any game around the world, every relevant online video, and everything written in local newspapers.”
Stoneward nodded. That sounded promising.
“Here comes a little complication, though. We have a protocol for using our AIs. The protocols are overcautious. Our AIs are still far away from human intelligence, but our Ethics and Safety boards insisted on implementing these protocols whenever we use some of the near-human intelligence systems. It is completely overblown, but we are basically preparing ourselves for the time we have actually intelligent systems, maybe even superhuman intelligent systems.”
“I am afraid I don’t understand.”
“Basically, instead of talking to the AI directly, we talk with them through an operator, or medium.”
“Talk to them? You simply talk with the AI? Like with Siri?”
Mirza scoffed. “Siri is just a set of hard coded scripts and triggers.”
Stoneward didn’t seem impressed by the rant.
“The medium talks with the AI, tries its best to understand it, and then relays the AI’s advice to us. The protocol is strict about not letting the AI interact with decision makers directly.”
“Ah, as said, it is just being overly cautious. The protocol is in place in case we ever develop a superhuman intelligence, in which case we want to ensure that the AI doesn’t have too much influence on actual decision makers. The fear is that a superhuman AI could possibly unduly influence the decision maker. But with the medium in between, we have a filter, a normal intelligence, so it won’t be able to invert the relationship between adviser and decision maker.”
Stoneward blinked. “Pardon me, but I didn’t entirely follow what you — ”
“It’s just a Science Fiction scenario, but in case the AI tries to gain control, the fear is that a superhuman intelligence could basically turn you into a mindless muppet. By putting a medium in between, well, even if the medium becomes enslaved, the medium can only use their own intelligence against you. And that will fail.”
The director took a sip of water, and was pondering what he just heard for a few moments. Denise Mirza was burning with frustration. Sometimes she forgets how it is to deal with people this slow. And this guy had more balls banged against his skull than is healthy, which isn’t expected to speed his brain up. After what felt like half an eternity, he nodded.
“Are you ready for me to call the medium in?”
She tapped her phone.
“Wait, does this mean that these mediums are slaves to your AI?”
She rolled her eyes. “Let us not discuss this in front of the medium, but I can assure you that our systems have not yet reached the level to convince a four year old to give up a lollipop, never mind a grown up person to do anything. We can discuss this more afterwards. Oh, there he is!”
Stoneward looked up surprised.
It was an old acquaintance, Nigel Ramsay. Ramsay used to manage some smaller teams in Lancashire, where Stoneward grew up. Ramsay was more known for his passion than for his talents.
“I am surprised to see you here”
The medium smiled. “It was a great offer, and when I learned what we are aiming for, I was positively thrilled. If this works we are going to make history!”
They sat down. “So, what does the system recommend?”
“Well, it recommends to increase the pressure on the government for a second referendum on Brexit.”
Stoneward stared at Ramsay, stunned. “Pardon me?”
“It is quite clear that the Prime Minister is intentionally sabotaging any reasonable solution for Brexit, but is too afraid to yet call a second referendum. She has been a double agent for the remainers the whole time. Once it is clear how much of a disaster leaving the European Union would be, we should call for a second referendum, reversing the result of the first.”
“I… I am not sure I follow… I thought we are talking football?”
“Oh, but yes! We most certainly are. Being part of an invigorated European Union after Brexit gets cancelled, we should strongly support a stronger Union, even the founding of a proper state.”
Stoneward looked at Ramsay with exasperation. Mirza motioned with her hands, asking for patience.
“Then, when the national football associations merge, this will pave the way for a single, unified European team.”
“The associations… merge?”
“Yes, an EU-wide all stars team. Just imagine that. Also, most of the serious competition would already be wiped out. No German team, no French team, just one European team and — “
“This is ridiculous! Reversing Brexit? Just to get a single European team? Even if we did, a unified European team might kill any interest in international football.”
“Yeah, that is likely true, but our winning chances would go through the roof!”
“But even then, 96% winning chances?”
“Oh, yeah, I asked the same. So, that’s not all. We also need to cause a war between Argentina and Brazil, in order to get them disqualified. There are a number of ways to get to this — ”
“Stop! Stop right there.” Stoneward looked shocked, his hands raised like a goalie waiting for the penalty kick. “Look, this is ridiculous. We will not stop Brexit or cause a war between two countries just to win a game.”
The medium looked at Stoneward in surprise. “To ‘just’ win a game?” His eyes wandered to Mirza in support. “I thought this was the sole reason for our existence. What does he mean, ‘just’ win a game? He is a bloody director of the FA, and he doesn’t care to win?”
“Maybe we should listen to some of the other suggestions?”, the CEO asked, trying to soothe the tension in the room.
Stoneward was visibly agitated, but after a few moments, he nodded. “Please continue.”
“So even if we don’t merge the European associations due to Brexit, we should at least merge the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish associations in — ”
“No, no, NO! Enough of this association merging nonsense. What else do you have?”
“Well, without mergers, and wars, we’re down to 44% probability to win both the European and World Cup within the next twenty years.” The medium sounded defeated.
“That’s OK, I’ll take that. Tell me more.” Stoneward has known that the probabilities given before were too good to be true. It was still a disappointment.
“England has some of the best schools in the world. We should use this asset to lure young talent to England, offer them scholarships in Oxford, in Cambridge.”
“But they wouldn’t be English? They can’t play for England.”
“We would need to make the path to citizenship easier for them, immigration laws should be more integrative for top talent. We need to give them the opportunity to become subjects of the Queen before they play their first international. And then offer them to play for England. There is so much talent out there, and if we can get them while they’re young, we could prep up our squad in just a few years.”
“Scholarships for Oxford? How much would that even cost?”
“20, 25 thousand per year and student? We can pay a hundred scholarships and it wouldn’t even show up in our budget.”
“We are cutting budgets left and right!”
“Since we’re not stopping Brexit, why not dip into those 350 million pounds per week that we will save.”
“That was a lie!”
“I was joking.”
“Well, the scholarship thing wasn’t bad. What else is on the table?”
“One idea was to hack the video stream and bribe the referee, and then we can safely gaslight everyone.”
“We could poison the other teams.”
“Just stop it.”
“Or give them substances that would mess up their drug tests.”
“Why not getting FIFA to change the rules so we always win?”
“Oh, we considered it, but given the existing corruption inside FIFA it seems that would be difficult to outbid.”
Stonward sighed. “Now I was joking.”
“One suggestion is to create a permanent national team, and have them play in the national league. So they would be constantly competing, playing with each other, be better used to each other. A proper team.”
“How would we even pay for the players?”
“It would be an honor to play for the national team. Also, it could be a new rule to require the best players to play in the national team.”
“I think we are done here. These suggestions were… rather interesting. But I think they were mostly unactionable.” He started standing up.
Mirza looked desperately from one to the other. This meeting did not go as she had intended. “I think we can acknowledge the breadth of the creative proposals that have been on the table today, and enjoy a tea before you leave?”, she said, forcing a smile.
Stoneward nodded politely. “We sure can appreciate the creativity.”
“Now imagine this creativity turned into strategies in the pitch. Tactical moves. Variations to set pieces.”, the medium started, his voice slightly shifting.
“Yes, well, that would certainly be more interesting than most of the suggestions so far.”
“Wouldn’t it? And not only that, but if we could talk to the players. If we could expand their own creativity. Their own willpower. Their focus. Their energy to power through, not to give up.”
“If you’re suggesting to give them drugs, I am out.”
Ramsay laughed. “No, not drugs. But a helmet that emits electromagnetic waves and allows the brain muscles to work in more interesting ways.”
Stoneward looked over to the CEO. “Is that a possibility?”
Mirza looked uncomfortable, but tried to hide it. “Yes, yes, it is. We had tested it a few times, and the results were quite astonishing. It is just not what I would have expected as a proposal.”
“Why? Anything wrong with that?”
“Well, we use it for our top engineers, to help them focus when developing and designing solutions. The results are nothing short of marvelous. It is just, I didn’t think football would benefit that much from improved focus.”
Stoneward chuckled, as he sat down again. “Yes, many people underestimate the role of a creative mind in the game. I think I would now like a tea.” He looked to Ramsay. “Tell me more.”
The medium smiled. The system will be satisfied with the outcome.
(Originally published July 28, 2018 on Medium)
Saturn the alligator
Wikidatan in residence at Google