What do we create in the bargain when sumo, the ancient sport and aesthetic tradition, also becomes a video game that demonstrates the powers of artificial intelligence
Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 1 December, 2017
Recently, I’ve been entranced by a remote pastime: sumo wrestling. I’ve never been interested in combative sports such as boxing, wrestling, mixed martial arts, bullfighting and so on. I suppose I’m a vegetarian in more ways than my diet. I’ve never set foot in a ring of any kind, never sought to test my physical strength against somebody else. Let’s just say that I have a writer’s physique. My inclinations have always been to team sports, the contest of collectives, not individuals.
But through a series of accidents earlier this year, my wife and I stumbled onto the nightly highlights of the day’s grand sumo competition in Japan. We were enthralled, mesmerised by the enormous wrestlers and their unlikely bodies, how they barrelled into one another like juggernauts, but also like dancers, with an impossible balletic grace. It became something of a pre-bedtime ritual, winding down the day with the titanic display of wrestlers halfway around the world.
Sumo isn’t just an ancient Japanese sport, it’s a complex aesthetic tradition, like opera or Bharatanatyam. Part of its appeal for a novice observer like me is that it makes itself available to the kind of appreciation you extend to art. There is a huge amount of ritual built into the combat, in the way the wrestlers enter the ring with great stamps to squash evil spirits, how they scatter salt in front of them to bless the sacred space of the ring, and how they slap the sides of their giant bellies to remind all those watching just how big they are.
That ritual frames and intensifies the very brief bout that follows. Most of the time, the combat barely lasts a few seconds. They launch into each other, struggle to get a grip over the other’s loincloth, and then attempt to either lever their opponent outside the ring or push him onto the floor. So much technique and precision goes into those seconds of gargantuan strain.
What impresses me most about sumo wrestlers is their speed and quickness on their feet. These are huge men, carrying twice or thrice the weight of normal people on their engorged bodies. There is something astonishingly architectural in the sight of them colliding, their vast expanses of quivering muscle and flesh like duelling continents. And yet, more often than not, the wrestler who proves victorious is the one who has the timing and judgement to lure his opponent into an ill-advised attack, only to shift to the side and watch his opponent lose his balance by lunging into the now empty air. For all their palpable strength and power, sumo wrestlers set themselves apart with their lightness. Their magic is to make themselves disappear.
About 20 years ago, a pair of Japanese sumo wrestlers arrived in India to fight – and eventually flatten – a handful of wrestlers of the Indian navy. According to an India Today report of the encounter, one of the Japanese men looked disapprovingly at the Indian diet, describing the fighters he toppled as “too skinny”. Sumo wrestlers must eat 20,000 calories a day to gain their monumental stature, inhaling a meat and vegetable stew called chanko. They observe highly regimented lives from the time they enter into “stables” at a young age, where they are trained into the habits, customs, techniques, and rigours of the world of sumo wrestling.
Curiously, a new kind of sumo wrestler is emerging in a very different sort of stable. In October, researchers released a video game called RoboSumo that demonstrates an enormous leap in the possibilities and powers of artificial intelligence. In the game, stick-figure sumo wrestlers try to grapple, push, and throw one another outside a virtual ring, just like their real-life Japanese wrestling counterparts.
None of their movements in this combat are pre-programmed by human engineers; they are all the product of “machine learning software” that allows these stick figures to learn how to wrestle through repetition and trial-and-error. After billions of bouts, the computer wrestlers figured out on their own how to lower their centre of gravity to become more stable, how to use their opponent’s momentum to their own advantage, how to fool and deceive, how to wrestle much like a sumo gladiator.
The success of RoboSumo and similar experiments heralds the future possibility of machines that can learn, think, and evolve on their own. What does it mean for a strip of computer code, an algorithm, a machine to have certain human cognitive capacities? What strange monsters are we in the process of creating?
But I find it stranger still that the researchers chose sumo as the prism through which they searched for the human capacities of machines. It’s a paradoxical choice of human activity. Sumo, after all, is a sport whose actors are themselves the product of decades of training and machine-like repetition. To sift sumo for insight into the human condition is almost to trivialise its power. In some spectator sports, you can feel a kind of kinship with the athletes, see in their efforts some echo of your flawed little self. Not so in sumo, which transforms humans into extraordinary, superhuman creatures, and grants us mortals who watch from the side the blessings of its otherworldly splendour.