Rick Telander: If We Don't Stop Getting Concussed, The Robots Will Win (Or Something Like That)

We do not know what is going on in Rick Telander's head, but he wrote a column about brains and computers yesterday that is so full of raving, delusional paranoia about some impending tyranny that he might as well be on mushrooms or in the Tea Party.

Telander, author of the great Heaven Is A Playground, played college football at Northwestern. He recently finished a strange but touching series in which he tracked down some of his former teammates and spoke to them about "what football did for them" and "to them," and particularly to their health. Brains are pretty evidently on Telander's mind.

As are robots, it seems. In yesterday's column, Telander took on the human brain and the threat of computer intelligence. His concern is that hard-hitting sports will make us lose the inevitable human-computer war. The human brain, he explains, is "jelly-like" and the "physical punches [and] whacks...cause no enhancement other than bruising." I guess that's one way of summarizing the hundreds of thousands of words penned by Alan Schwarz and Ben McGrath. And to those words, Telander contributes a serious opinion: now that we know how bad concussions are, he says, "it is wrong to continue on with certain rituals, even joyous ones, that we previously thought were morally fine." Wait, too bold. A qualification, please:

At least we shouldn't continue them in the same way as before.

Better. Relief. But if we're so wise now, Rick, why does hockey fighting go on like it does?

You can ask me here why hockey fighting goes on, and I'll say I have no idea.

Well, no pressure. Let's move on to the second point, which really gets to the heart of Telander's paranoia:

...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 great, right?

That's smart.

Whew.

Unless we're really dumb.

Oh.

And we're not ...

Whew.

... 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?

Oh.

So if I'm following this, and I might not be because I had a concussion snowboarding when I was 12 and generally find computers to be intimidating, then we have to stop concussions to protect our intelligence against the stadium-arena of the future, which will house towering computers that will kick our asses in everything, especially Jeopardy!

OK, while not exactly sane, there is at least some internal consistency. But then comes the coda, "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 follow that, please use your computer as an email conduit between our inferior brains and explain it to me. I got nothing. Current film comparisons, however, I can relate to:

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.

While Wahlberg/Ward is "more dynamic as a person, a recognizable hero," Eisenberg/Zuckerberg is "the one who resonates, who blows your mind... In olden days he would have been the nerd, lost in the rat lab." He continues:

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.

Nay. All of our brains by then will be ruined, jelly-like hematomas, incapable of the intelligent thought required to lift a baseball bat and swing it at an interface, and Terminator will rule the arena-stadium that is Earth.

Telander: Brain against the machines [Chicago Sun-Times]