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Playing sports against a robotic opponent can make your brain work harder, says study

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The study suggests that human brains process these two experiences very differently, which suggests that training with a machine might not offer the same experience as playing against a real opponent.

People look on as a robot (right) plays table tennis with a man during an demonstration at the World Robot Conference in Beijing, China, November 23, 2015.Picture: REUTERS, Stringer

New York – US researchers have discovered that playing sports against a human opponent versus a robot can be different. It can make people’s brains work harder.

The findings have implications for sports training, suggesting that human opponents provide a realism that can’t be replaced with machine helpers.

The study suggests that human brains process these two experiences very differently, which suggests that training with a machine might not offer the same experience as playing against a real opponent.

“Robots are getting more ubiquitous. Humans interacting with robots is going to be different than when they interact with other humans. Our long term goal is to try to understand how the brain reacts to these differences,” said Daniel Ferris, Professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida.

In the study, the team looked to understand how human brains react to the intense demands of a high-speed sport like table tennis – and what difference a machine opponent makes.

They analysed dozens of hours of table tennis matches where humans were pitted against machines and each other.

Players wore electrode caps so their brain activity could be monitored during the games. They discovered that the brains of table tennis players react very differently to human or machine opponents.

When playing against another human, players’ neurons worked in unison, like they were all speaking the same language.

In contrast, when players faced a ball-serving machine, the neurons in their brains were not aligned with one another. In the neuroscience world, this is known as desynchronisation.

The team suspects that the players’ brains were so active while waiting for robotic serves because the machines provide no cues of what they are going to do next.

As robots grow more common and sophisticated, understanding our brains’ response could help make our artificial companions more naturalistic, the researchers said.

“I still see a lot of value in practising with a machine,” said Amanda Studnicki, a graduate student at the varsity.

“But I think machines are going to evolve in the next 10 or 20 years, and we could see more naturalistic behaviours for players to practise against,” she added.

IANS

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