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Intelligent Machines

A Gym for the Brain

Great basketball players aren’t just powerful athletes: they also have a “sense” of the entire court and the ability to make split-second decisions, which many people assume are innate. But a company in Netanya, Israel, called Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) believes that these talents can be taught – and to prove it, it has created a video-game-like tool, based on training techniques used by the Israeli Air Force, that helps players learn when to shoot or pass the ball and how to work with teammates.

ACE’s program, called IntelliGym, bears no external resemblance to basketball. The player initially shoots down enemy spacecraft using the keyboard’s arrow keys. Over the span of a dozen or so 40-minute sessions, the tasks get more complicated, challenging the player to confront a variety of enemies with a range of weapons. That may sound like standard video-game fare, but there’s a carefully planned strategy underneath: each level is designed to exercise specific skills used in basketball, such as predicting an opponent’s trajectory, deciding when to shoot at an opponent who keeps changing direction, and working with other team members to defeat a number of opponents. Reports of player and team performance are automatically generated for review by coaches.

Daniel Gopher, a professor of industrial engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who introduced a computer-based trainer to the Israeli Air Force more than a decade ago and found that it improved pilots’ skills by up to 30 percent, agreed to help ACE design a new tool aimed at the sports industry, where improved performance can mean big bucks. “We spend so much time in the weight room working on the physical aspect, but this is the one area that is pretty untapped – the cognitive and mental aspects of the game,” says Ed Schilling, assistant coach for the University of Memphis Tigers, one of two NCAA Division I teams that have already signed contracts with ACE.

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