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Telander: Brain against the machines

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Blows to the head are nothing new in sport, or life.

I am reminded of the time I asked Mike Tyson at a news conference before a fight if he was concerned about the possible negative effects from some of the blows to the head he had received in his career.

He looked at me as if I were insane, giggled and said, ‘‘I think some of the blows to the head I’ve received have been good for me.’’

Einstein likely felt that way. Edison, for sure. Moses, too.

But theirs were blows of enlightenment, ‘‘Eureka!’’ flashes of perspective and creativity dropped on them by God or the electric company.

Physical punches or whacks that rock the jelly-like human brain inside its skull casing cause no enhancement other than bruising, bleeding and temporary or possibly permanent damage down the road.

Why is this formula so important now, particularly as it relates to popular sports like tackle football?

Two reasons.

First, only recently have scientists and journalists been able to put together the research and information that show conclusively the dangers of single or repeated blows, even minor ones, to the heads of athletes in training and competition. Before, it was mostly anecdote, low humor, obfuscation.

Consider it wasn’t until last year that the devious and know-nothing NFL Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee was restructured with seemingly authentic and un-buyable neurologists at the helm, and the word ‘‘Mild’’ was dropped altogether.

Mild. Brain injury. Ha.

I am reminded here of ‘‘minor’’ surgery, which, of course, is surgery on somebody else.

We’d better change . . . or else

Once the new knowledge gets out there, it is wrong to continue on with certain rituals, even joyous ones, that we previously thought were morally fine. At least we shouldn’t continue them in the same way as before.

You can ask me here why hockey fighting goes on, and I’ll say I have no idea. We banned bare-knuckle fighting decades ago, but .  .  . I surrender.

Second, we live in a world that is progressing into a vast arena in which mankind has never lived, never even comprehended, the stadium of human-enhanced computer dominance. It is a place where intelligence, real or artificial, will be all. Scientists say that by as early as 2045 there may well be a computer that dwarfs mankind. By then, according to the current cover story in Time, a computer might exist that will surpass ‘‘the brainpower equivalent to that of all human brains combined.’’

That’s smart. Unless we’re really dumb. And we’re not, except when we do dumb things, like let our heads get damaged continually and call it something like ringing a bell. In our new environment, how can anyone allow his or her IQ, or their children’s, to be lowered?

A new way of thinking

Physical labor is already disappearing in developed countries. Robots can do that. And the impoverished. Sports are for fun at low levels. Then they’re about something else — entertainment, escapism, wealth, voyeurism even.

If you think the talk of silicon joining and even replacing the organic mind is nonsense, remember that your own laptop does the work a global library once did. Consider, as Time points out, that ‘‘your average cell phone is about a millionth the size of, a millionth the price of and a thousand times more powerful than’’ the best computer at MIT 40 years ago.

When I think of Muhammad Ali, I always think of a proud, charismatic man who had to surrender his brain to get the attention he craved. And it always makes me sad, even angry.

It’s ironic, and perfectly illustrative of our schizoid times, that two movies nominated for Best Picture in this year’s Oscar race are ‘‘The Fighter,’’ and ‘‘The Social Network.’’ In the former, brawler ‘‘Irish’’ Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, uses his brain cells as pawns as he fights his bloody way to the championship. In the latter, Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, uses his brain cells to invent the thing called Facebook, which connects 600 million people to one another, no end in sight.

We’ve seen each journey before — indeed, they’re the same journey, the triumph-over-obstacle journey that humans are hard-wired to love.

Ward/Wahlberg is far more dynamic as a person, a recognizable hero, however. But Zuckerberg/Eisenberg is the one who resonates, who blows your mind — a bland, friendless, blank-faced, hyperactive tech weenie as genius winner. I have never seen anything like his onscreen character before. In olden days he would have been the nerd, lost in the rat lab.

But the olden days are gone. And you can be assured that if the battle between machines and humans ever becomes confrontational, it won’t be won by fists and forearms, helmets and sticks to our delicate heads.



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