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DataIQ Awards 2021 winner – Most innovative use of AI: Emirates Team New Zealand, McKinsey & Company and QuantumBlack

DataIQ Awards 2021 winner - Most innovative use of AI: Emirates Team New Zealand

The America’s Cup is the oldest trophy in competitive sailing and its most coveted. Rules for the sport allow for design modifications to a racing vessel’s hydrofoils – by modifying these, teams can gain significant competitive advantage. But testing boat designs is hugely time-consuming, so from 2017 Emirates Team New Zealand had begun to use a simulator that removed the need for actual boat building. Even so, multiple team members were still required and conflicting schedules made this challenging.

So in 2019, the team partnered with McKinsey and its artificial intelligence arm QuantumBlack to develop an AI bot which would be able to “sail” thousands of potential boat designs with potential new hydrofoil designs. A key element of this project was the need to train the boat to sail like an Olympic-level athlete and ensure that any performance gains from hydrofoil options were attributable to design changes, not sailor-based variation.

McKinsey and QuantumBlack began by migrating the existing simulator into a cloud-based virtual environment where tests could be run at scale. Deep reinforcement learning was then applied to refine the skills of the AI bot, ensuring it could respond to conditions such as wind speed and direction, as well as trading-off immediate and long-term goals. Multiple bots were created that could run in parallel and apply machine-to-machine learning.

After 1,000 hours of virtual sailing, the bot began to beat human sailors which allowed the team to retire the simulator. Testing iterations increased tenfold across 2019 and 2020 and a new bonus was recognised – the bot made manoeuvres that improved on human performance in the simulator, creating a competitors they could repeatedly race against. Constraints were also put in place to ensure any design changes would be capable to being deployed and used in real-world racing.

Emirates Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup in 2021 for the fourth time in a row. The AI bot means boat designs can now be iterated and tested in hours, not days, while the near-perfect competitor means human sailors can constantly refine their skills in the simulator.

DataIQ Awards 2021
Year: 2021
Category: Most Innovative Use of AI

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