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What else Joe Tsai said this week may be more important than his comment on managing players

Joe Tsai got a lot of attention for his comment that NBA players can be difficult to manage. But what else he said may be far more interesting.

Beyond Tech

A lot of attention was paid this week to Joe Tsai’s remark about “managing” Nets players in his presentation at Beyond Expo, a tech conference in Macao, just across China’s Pearl River delta from Hong Kong.

Discussing the role artificial intelligence will play in digital entertainment, Tsai, executive vice-president of Alibaba — basically China’s Amazon, ticked off the benefits of using digital actors over real ones. It seemed somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Believe me, I manage a basketball team and the players are very difficult to manage. If you’re in Hollywood, it’s very, very difficult to manage people.

But that was a very small part of what Tsai said. We were more intrigued by his comments on using digital actors, digital personalities created by derivative AI, as well as other A! enhancements that will change entertainment — and in some future perhaps yet undefined way — change sports.

Here’s the full video. The Nets comment is at 03:35 in...

But more interesting from a general aspect — and from the perspective of what your team’s owner is up to — starts at 4:33. It’s a video — a Major League Baseball promotion of the World Series that Alibaba produced and ran in China. It features a young Chinese female named “Leah” who is learning the game.

Leah is not real if very realistic. She was created by Alibaba’s entertainment unit using artificial intelligence! Nothing about her is human, not her form, not her voice. As Tsai said, not so tongue-in-cheek...

“Leah is a digital actress. She is a digital personality that we’ve created. She’s not a real person, and here’s the beauty of this. With digitization, we can bring together what is a very American sport, like baseball with something from China, that’s made in the image of a Chinese actress. And then we can merge the two together into a very sort of Chinese-American scene of promoting Major League Baseball. In fact, our group had done a deal with MLB to help promote this thing, and we have created a 3D model. When we create, we create a 3D model and it took us about a month to create. But today, if you use generative AI, it’ll take about a week to create this model.

“So, today, in order to create this digital model, it’ll just take one week. That’s a very interesting aspect because now you replace human beings, you don’t have to manage the emotion for the issues with real humans (emphasis added.) And the other thing is Leah is now a digital asset of the company — of the movie production company — and she belongs to the movie production company, and she’s in fact represented by an agent. The next thing is the NBA will probably call us and say, ‘Hey, can we use your Leah to help promote the league?’ I think that creates longevity for whoever created the character, and you can obviously build on the character.”

In the midst of the writers’ strike, where AI is an issue, that is quite the statement. In other comments in his presentation, Tsai spoke of labor — and money — saving aspects in other parts of moviemaking and entertainment in general, including logistics, digital studios, production, marketing etc. Alibaba he noted is already working in big productions.

Tsai has long been heavily involved in Alibaba’s commitment to artificial intelligence. After all, Alibaba is a very competitive online retail e-commerce business. It doesn’t take much to imagine how valuable AI is to that kind of business. The same holds true with American companies like Microsoft and Google and Apple. They’re increasingly into AI. (Investments Alibaba made in two Chinese facial recognition companies are at the center of criticisms of Tsai that suggest that he played a role in the oppression of China’s Uiyghur population.)

Is there a role for AI in the NBA? It may be too early to tell, but not by much. There are certainly possibilities in the most basic of its uses: machine learning as part of player development, performance, analytics, even coaching. What about digital actors on the court in some new league, maybe one built on the NBA’s 2k League? That is already true in computer gaming, of course, but again it doesn’t take much to imagine the next frontier.

Through his family investment vehicle, Blue Pool Capital, Tsai has made a number of personal investments in sports beyond the Nets and Liberty that could be dramatically effected by AI, like esports and gaming. Would a digital version of Kyrie Irving be more “manageable” in an AI-generated basketball league?

The range of possibilities is well beyond our imagination here at ND. AI is really in its infancy but the examples of how it can change — disrupt — things continue to grow. Just for fun and to show one tiny slice of that range, we asked ChatGPT, the most accessible derivative AI chatbot, to write us a rap lyric on Joe Tsai. That was the instruction. Seconds later...

(Verse 1)

Yo, gather ‘round, let me tell you a tale,

About a man named Joe Tsai, never destined to fail,

Born in Taiwan, but his dreams took flight,

To the land of opportunity, he saw the light,

He went to Yale, got a law degree,

But the world of business is where he wanted to be,

So he joined Alibaba, Jack Ma’s crew,

And together they built an empire, oh so true,


Joe Tsai, the billionaire king,

In the world of tech, he’s the man with the bling,

From Alibaba to the Brooklyn Nets,

His story’s inspirational, one you’ll never forget,

(Verse 2)

Joe’s a visionary, and he’s got the touch,

A philanthropist, too, giving back so much,

Education, healthcare, and climate change,

His impact on the world, it’s got a wide range,

Now he’s in sports, owning teams like a boss,

With the Brooklyn Nets, he’s showing them who’s the boss,

And the New York Liberty, in the WNBA,

Empowering women, paving the way,


From Taiwan to the US, and all around the globe,

He’s a living legend, the story never gets old,

Making a difference, one step at a time,

Joe Tsai’s legacy, it’s truly sublime,


Joe Tsai, the billionaire king,

In the world of tech, he’s the man with the bling,

From Alibaba to the Brooklyn Nets,

His story’s inspirational, one you’ll never forget,


So here’s to Joe Tsai, may his legacy live on,

A testament to greatness, like the rising sun,

Keep chasing dreams, and never back down,

In the world of legends, Joe Tsai wears the crown.

You may or may not agree with the sentiments expressed but the product is at the very least wild. As Tsai also said Wednesday,

“AI used to be able to tell you the difference between dogs and cats, whether it’s black or white. But now AI can actually generate content just like a human brain, very actively generating new information, new content.”

Tsai also believes that AI is not going to replace humans. As one report of his talk noted,

Joe Tsai said he doesn’t worry about robots, as he believes in the future evolution of human intelligence. “We actually have not explored how smart the human brain can get. There are 80 million neurons in the human brain and trillions of connections and synapses in the human brain. So there’s the potential of the human brain to get smarter and operate at a higher capacity.” Tsai said.

They don’t have human emotions and relations, and are not capable of producing kids, added Tsai.

Indeed, in the past two years, Joe and Clara Wu Tsai have set up institutes at their alma maters, Yale and Stanford to study neuro-science and human cognition, “the wonders of the mind,” as Yale’s president said last year. The investments, through their foundation, are believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There will be implications for sports, for the NBA, from the increasingly broader use of AI in every aspect of our lives. How it plays out will affect the on-court performance, off-court promotion, etc. It sounds as if ownership of the Nets is going to be in the forefront of what is the brave new world.