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NEXT: A World Without Referees

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I first started writing this piece after watching an Ohio State football game where video review overturned what I thought was a rather obvious call that the referees had blown. Big Ten referees seem especially prone to making such bad calls: wouldn’t it be great if the video review were used for every call, taking the game out of the hands of these human — and very fallible — officials?

There has been a great deal of discussion and concern about automation, about the alarming rate that technology seems to be replacing human cognitive labor. One area where I believe we are already seeing the effects of automation is in sports and, in particular, the judging of sporting activities.

It is increasingly possible that in the future we will see sophisticated technology systems — sensors, artificial intelligence, motion sensing — that will enforce the rules of the game and adjudicate disputes with a precision and consistency that humans simply cannot match. Sports today are already so much faster and more physical than in the past, and the legacy system of human referees, judges and officials simply will not be able to keep up with the increasing pace and speed of sports.

Technology already supplements human judges in a number of sports. Anyone watching the World Series could not help but notice the strike zone digitally superimposed over home plate. The technology can now track the strike zone and where the ball crosses that plane. The home-plate umpire’s calls and the computerized strike zone are very often in sync such that we might ask, ‘At what stage will the home plate umpire be made unnecessary when a technological system is capable of impartially and consistently calling balls and strikes?’

In the very near future, people attending a baseball game would watch the pitcher throw the ball, the batter look closely but not swing, then a computerized voice over the loudspeaker would shout “Strike!”

If this idea seems outlandish — after all, we will always defer to human judges in sports — consider the fate of the let judge in tennis. At one time not very long ago, there was a special judge who sat next to the net, holding her fingers lightly on the taut cord that holds up the net. On every serve, the let judge would concentrate on her fingers and whether there was even the slightest vibration from a ball nicking the top of the net, signaling “Let!” were that to occur. Identifying lets was this person’s only responsibility during a tennis match.

The let judge was replaced years ago with a technology that accomplishes the same task. Tennis players may now motion the chair umpire for a video review of a ball that is called out, a player usually having three such opportunities during the course of a set. The technology is so advanced that it can determine down to the millimeter whether a ball has landed in play or out.

It does not take a dramatic stretch of the imagination to envision a day when every call in tennis — not just those disputed by the players — are so reviewed by the technology. Again, a computerized voice would announce over loud speakers, “Out!” in the way that a line umpire does today.

Given that serves are now traveling as high as 120 miles per hour, we will no doubt reach a stage where a human being will not be able to reliably make correct calls. Artificially-intelligent officials will make these calls in the future, and the line judge and chair umpire will go the way of the let judge.

Players today are already wearing more and more sensors on their uniforms and equipment. Tracking the real-time data produced by players will allow artificially-intelligent officials to determine if a player stayed in bounds while running up field, or whether a tackle against a quarterback was in fact targeting.

Even soccer players diving and otherwise simulating a foul against them will be so monitored: given the force of the contact by an opposing player and given the velocity at which the other player falls, a technological system could determine whether or not a foul was actually committed. The computer would be saying in effect “You were not contacted with any kind of force to produce the flop you just staged.”

With enough sensors embedded into players’ equipment — everything from shoulder pads to helmets, to hockey sticks — a computerized system will be able to determine if a hockey player is guilty of high sticking or slashing. Using algorithms to determine if a player has slammed an opposing player into the wall with sufficient force, given his velocity and starting position, technology will determine if boarding has occurred, and once again a disembodied voice will announce the penalty after it halts play.

Today, technology assists human referees in making decisions. Tomorrow, these roles will be reversed. Humans might be called upon to troubleshoot in situations where the call is simply too close, even for the computer. Play might be stopped as “Under Human Review.” Or, as will very likely be the case, those human referees that do remain will not be making calls about rule interpretations, but will serve to separate unruly players. A hockey linesman will no longer be called upon to determine if a team is offside — technology can already determine that today. But he will be called upon to break up a fight.

David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings ColumbusThe next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday November 16 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) Our topic for the evening will be “Big History: Techniques for analyzing possible futures?” 

The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, November 17 at 8:30 a.m., at Camelot Cellars. David All will speak on the theme, “Death.”

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