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America's Cup 36: AI, RL, TLA, ETNZ, LRPP

by John Curnow, Editor, Sail-World AUS 5 Mar 11:00 GMT
Auckland's Viaduct Harbour venue for the 36th America's Cup © Carlo Borlenghi

Now there's a wee event happening across 'The Ditch' (Tasman Sea) next week. So I certainly enjoyed writing from the armchair a little while ago, and whilst on that, thanks very much to all of you who read it (tens of thousands around the globe).

However, since then I have very much been absorbed in other matters inside the greater Sail-World group, and yet around the same time fortunate enough to be placed into a chat group of some very, very avid sailors who've been messaging away, and that's managed to keep me roughly in touch with the grand spectacle.

Well looky here...

Never sure there was any question as to big business being involved with yachting, similarly for management consultants, but advisory firms in critical issues was a fairly new one to me.

What we're talking about is how Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) partnered with McKinsey & Co (and more specifically their subsidiary Quantum Black) to use Reinforcement Learning in their bid to defend Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli in next week's 36th America's Cup. Many thanks to Clay Bischoff, Senior Partner with McKinsey & Company (also two-time Teams Racing World Champion) who brought to it all my attention.

Arguably more than ever, the new AC75s had pushed the envelope farther than ever before. Whilst the keels might have had wings (nothing like the ones of yesteryear BTW), single element soft wing mainsails, and no spinnakers despite the pronounced prodders, these were beasts hitherto the likes of which had probably only existed in sketches from storyboards that did not quite make it into The Invincibles.

R&D has been intrinsically linked to the America's Cup perhaps since it began, which may be one of the reasons the Auld Mug is the oldest sporting silverware going around. Yet such a new and untested class was always going to need loads of time and money, and in the modern world, both were in short(ish) supply.

Bischoff said, "Teams were limited in the time they had to both create and also test key boat components. Given the short timeframe between the release of the competition rules and the start of the race, teams were limited by the volume of boat design iterations they could produce, and by the task of coordinating schedules to have skilled crewmembers on hand to test them."

"To overcome this, McKinsey created a 'digital twin' - an artificial intelligence bot within a simulator - to replicate the sailors and boat, and to allow for continuous design and testing. The team used Reinforcement Learning (RL) to help the bot respond to wind, currents, sail shape and more, mimicking how humans learn. Given the dynamic nature of the environment being replicated, this represents one of the most complex applications of RL ever."

The approach not only sped up hydrofoil design time by ten times, it even taught the world's best sailors new techniques!

Modern AI

Five years ago, a machine beat a human four to one in the ancient and complex game of Go. Tech giants have been at ways of harnessing it for everything from scientific research to robotics, software, medicine, and so on ever since. Now without getting into arguments about SkyNet, vector based autopilots and two-handed in the Sydney Hobart, or spinning propeller helmets with the late Pierre Bézier, what it all brought out was that man had helped the machine, and the machine had in turn helped man by offering a different paradigm. Nice. Now whether that will mean ETNZ have some advantage will remain to be seen, but it is fair to say that LRPP would have been at some of their own AI 'games' as well.

Bischoff closed by saying, "The application of cutting-edge AI to the pursuit of the oldest trophy in international sport highlights the transformation that sailing is undergoing as teams work to incorporate the latest tech into their training routines and performance. Given the time-consuming nature of designing and testing America's Cup boats, this deployment of RL represents a major pivot point in the competition, rapidly speeding up the evolution of the boats, and ultimately, the sport."

Gods of Water

Back in real life now, and not sure you ever have to look too far to see Aussies on boats at the pointy end of the fleet in the big leagues. Indeed, at one iteration of the Cup, Team USA looked awfully like Team AUS to me!

So as AC36 looks set to get away in earnest, all of Australia wishes these two leaders inside their respective teams the very best of the duelling that is going to captivate all the way from Auckland to Anchorage, and the Tuamotus to Turkmenistan. Glenn Ashby and Jimmy Spithill have each won the America's Cup twice beforehand. Ashby has amassed a stunning 17 World Championships, and won a Silver Medal at Beijing with the incredible Darren Bundock in the Tornado. Spithill was the youngest ever AC Skipper, and has offshore credits to his name to boot. Both have talent by the sail bag load...

Yes. We will have all your America's Cup news and footage right here on

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Finally, many thanks for making Sail-World your go-to choice. We're always here to keep pumping out the news. Stay safe, and have the happiest time possible depending on your level of restrictions.

John Curnow
Editor, Sail-World AUS

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