A few weeks ago two of us were talking about the perception of "now". A fusion of sensory inputs, responses and thoughts takes place and a highly edited version is assigned in what we perceive as a smooth and linear flow of time. Consider vision. It turns out it takes us around three tenths of a second to put together a meaningful image from the time light hits the retina. First we note color, a bit later motion and finally form. No big deal unless you have to react very quickly. For most of us that isn't a big deal. For athletes it is.
Baseball is useful as the time it takes for the ball to travel from pitcher to bat isn't much longer than the time it takes to process an image. But baseball "works." To examine vision in baseball consider the great women's fastpitch softball player Jenny Finch. A few years ago she broke what the best Major League Baseball hitters are capable of.
Their problem is they don't know how to "read" her. Beginning as little kids they learned how to hit a ball getting progressively better over time. Early on the time of flight for the ball was so slow that human vision and reflex speeds weren't the major issue. With practice they began to learn how to read the pitcher. Posture, arm movements and so on. The shards of image they formed gave them information on the physics of the ball's flight path. They were learning all of the patterns even though they thought that they really sensed when the ball was released and when it hit their bat - after all, that's what their mind told them. But what their mind put together wasn't accurate. In reality they were linking reads and other early information with ball trajectories.
Jenny comes along with a pitch that is over ten meters per second slower than what they're used to, but the information they receive doesn't link reliably with ball trajectories. They either try to rely on reflexes missing the ball entirely as it flies past before they can swing or they use a mistaken trajectory from their mistaken read and strike out. They could learn... give them a lot of time working with women's fastpitch experts and they'd finally build the appropriate library. Ultimately some of them might even play the game well.
There's a striking similarity with machine learning. You show a program a huge amount of data trying to be clever and you get a program that can quickly do great pattern recognition. At least within a restricted domain. The richness of training datasets is often poor. Facial recognition programs might have respectable results for white people, but completely fail with people of color. Such biases of omission are very common, but many other types of bias exist. (again a rich and deep subject well beyond the scope of an hour).
Machine learning can be useful but is only robust when the limits of where you can use it and the types of errors it makes are well-understood. There are many areas where it's sort of good enough even though these limits aren't well established. Other areas are more critical. We're a long way from it being generally useful in areas the tech press considers nearly solved - self driving vehicles come to mind.
Back to the athlete. Sports are played at many levels. At an amateur level we play because it's fun. Beyond that most of us are watching others. In direct competition we usually prefer watching serious pros. Beyond the beauty of watching human motion being executed so well there are those magical times where something extraordinary happens. Athletes at the highest level develop a deep sense of the game and, in addition to being able to react faster than their vision and reflexes would suggest, are tracking and processing other channels of information. In some games players develop a "field sense" .. they know where the other players are and how they're moving. You see this dramatically in beach volleyball when played at the highest level and it is common in soccer and basketball. This gives them the ability to do the impossible. These are very beautiful human moments beyond machine learning. And it goes beyond sport .. think of the human experts that just out of the ordinary when the time comes - like Captain Sully Sullenberger landed in the Hudson.
We tend to think about athletes as having some physical gifts and a lot of training. Certainly those are necessary, but there's an impressive mental component. We don't say someone is good at foreign languages because they have a dexterous tongue.