Google AI to predict NCAA Final Four outcomes at half time

Commentary: The search giant will run ads that predict the future during Saturday's March Madness Final Four games. Bookies will surely love it.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

NCAA men's basketball Sweet 16 Maryland Terrapins vs. Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas is still in it. But is its fate predictable?

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Your bracket may be busted, but you may still not be bust. 

You may wish, perhaps, to wager a remaining few cents on the outcome of Saturday's two Final Four games in the NCAA tournament.

Surely, then, Google has come to your rescue.

The search (and destroy all doubt) company announced that it will use every single last piece of artificially intelligent analytics during the games to predict some of the things that will happen in the rest of the game. At half time.

In a blog post Friday, Google Cloud's Courtney Blacker explained that the company will get its machines and boffins to crunch numbers at the speed of a LeBron dunk and turn the results into ads that will tease the future.

Google has been working with the NCAA throughout the tournament.

"We assembled a team of technicians, data scientists and basketball enthusiasts (we call them The Wolfpack) who built a data-processing workflow using Google Cloud Platform technologies like BigQuery and Cloud Datalab," the company said

The idea on Saturday is that Google will use this workflow and marry it with the NCAA's historical data to make its half-time predictions as to how the teams are going to play in the second half.

Having made its predictions, Google and its creative cohorts will turn this all into an ad and make sure it's finished before the second half begins. Then the ad will run before the players tip off again.

It's high entertainment. Meanwhile in Vegas, they will surely salivate.

Google admits anything could happen. An odd admission for a company that seems to believe AI can anticipate and do all, a company whose own CEO, Sundar Pichai, believes AI will be more important for humanity than fire or electricity.

The company also insists it isn't picking winners or losers. A company spokeswoman told me that just doing that would be "a fairly limited prospect." A fairly limited prospect that would be everything to many. 

Instead, the company says it will predict "influential features on team performance," the spokeswoman said.

An example she offered: "The second half will be focused on the free-throw line. Between both teams, they will hit at least 32 free throws."

Even that, though, will surely have bookies and bettors looking at their own stats and making decisions accordingly. It's understandable that Google doesn't want to claim it's picking winners and losers -- think of the brand damage if it was wrong -- but it's certainly offering data that may influence many.

March Madness will see plenty of flames and sparks. 

But if Google's men and machines in perfect harmony can actually offer stats that -- inadvertently or not -- predict the outcome, then it may be the beginning of the end of sports as we know it.

First published March 31, 4 a.m. PT. 
Update, March 31 at 11:03 a.m. PT: Adds clarification from Google that it isn't picking winners and losers.

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