OK Computer: How computers will—and won’t—change the NFL

In 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue became the first supercomputer to defeat a chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov, in a game. A year later Deep Blue edged Kasparov 3 1/2–2 1/2 in a full match. Why should you, a football fan, care? Because, as the late linebacker Junior Seau once said, “football is a chess game.”

Deep Blue defeated Kasparov by brute force, scanning through 200 million moves per second. And, ominously, over the last two decades that computational force has only gotten more brutal. At chess tournaments played in Bilbao, Spain, in 2004 and ’05, a team of three computers defeated their human opponents 8½–3½ and 8–4, respectively. But that was two decades ago. modern smartphones make even Deep Blue look painfully slow: A Samsung Galaxy S5, for example, can perform 140 billion floating-point operations per second, more than 10 times the speed of IBM’s old machine. Moore’s Law predicts that computational power doubles roughly every two years, so by Super Bowl 100, in 2066, computers should be several million times faster than today. Imagine a robot Bill Belichick flicking through a digital playbook of trillions of moves during the 40-second gap between plays.

The BCS computers already made their mark in the college game, before a human-only playoff committee overthrew them last year. The computers were either a digital force for good or evil, depending on whether they raised or lowered your school’s ranking. A company called Edge Up Sports is using Watson, IBM’s cognitive computing system, to gain an edge in fantasy football. Jim Rushton, head of IBM’s Sports & Entertainment division, predicts that in the next few years Watson could help teams predict and reduce injuries, and pick the best players from the draft.

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