Misplaced Faith in Computer Precision

Computers can be fantastically accurate. And humans have a tendency to assume that this accuracy means something.

For example, an automated license plate reader might flag the license plate in front of you as “stolen.” You look at the report, confirm the license plate in front of you, and arrest the driver. You may not consider that the report itself is wrong. Even if the technology works exactly as intended, it doesn’t necessarily mean what you assume it means.

Joe Posnanski suggests this kind of faith in computer precision may be unfairly impacting athletes as well:

Maybe you heard about the truly insane false-start controversy in track and field? Devon Allen — a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles — was disqualified from the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships a few weeks ago for a false start.

Here’s the problem: You can’t see the false start. Nobody can see the false start. By sight, Allen most definitely does not leave before the gun.


Allen’s reaction time was 0.099 seconds, just 1/1000th of a second under the “allowable limit” of 0.1 seconds.

Posnanski writes:

World Athletics has determined that it is not possible for someone to push off the block within a tenth of a second of the gun without false starting. They have science that shows it is beyond human capabilities to react that fast. Of course there are those (I’m among them) who would tell you that’s nonsense, that’s pseudoscience, there’s no way that they can limit human capabilities like that. There is science that shows it is humanly impossible to hit a fastball. There was once science that showed human beings could not run a four-minute mile.

The computer can tell you his reaction time was 0.099 seconds. But it can’t tell you what that means.

As we rely more and more on computers to make decisions, especially “artificially intelligent” computers, it will be critical to understand what they are telling us and what they are not.