Robots Over Humans: Innovation or Disruption?

The replacement of humans in training professional athletes or umpires and referees in professional sports events with Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the rise in contemporary times. Moreover, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly every household on the planet would have had to use some technology in one way or the other to carry out basic day-to-day routines. Furthermore, in the case of professional athletes, they cannot afford to miss training sessions which is a factor that AI has made better or else it will take a toll on their performance and fitness levels.

Photo Finish is the earliest use of technologies that enhanced humans’ experience in sports and athletics. Photo Finish cameras were officially developed in the mid-1900s. However, as explained by Gail Buckland in his book ‘First Photographs,’ there were certain developments back in the late 1800s that may have played a part in the development of Photo Finish technology. Photo Finish was then continued to be used in several sports like Harness Racing, Hurdles, etc.

Some of the other examples of the pioneering use of AI in sports are the Electronic Line Judge in Tennis (introduced in 1974) and the Third Umpire in Cricket (introduced in 1992), and they are continued to be seen in every game of Tennis and Cricket, respectively, to date. The use of Electronic Line Judges can be seen in Badminton as well. However, there have been extensive developments in the sport of Football in the past few years.

Goal-Line Technology was given official approval by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) in 2012, altering the Laws of the Game to allow (but not mandate) its usage. It was initially put into use in 2014. Similarly, Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is another support tool for footballing officials. The first live trial of the VAR system was in July 2016 in a friendly match between PSV and FC Eindhoven. Later, it was seen to be used successfully at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Interestingly, VAR received criticisms in abundance. Many people claimed that it killed the flow of the game, fans could not appreciate every goal as they were, it led to time wasting and even that VAR got decisions wrong in certain instances. However, the audience has only gotten accommodated to the use of VAR since then.

Similar to this, semi-automated offside technology, introduced for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is another support tool for video match officials and on-field officials to assist them in making quicker, more consistent, and more accurate offside rulings. Even though some decisions at the event caused confusion to the fans, it is safe to say that the technology was a success. To some degree, the chapter ‘Interactive Audience? The “Collective Intelligence” of Media Fans’ from the book ‘Fans, bloggers, and gamers: exploring participatory culture’ by Henry Jenkins is in line with the use of Augmented Reality in the 2022 FIFA World Cup’s use of the FIFA Player App.

In conclusion, robots, or AI in general, are an innovation and have decreased human errors in sporting events. But it disrupts the audience when the technologies replacing humans are not fully and adequately tested to a great extent and are implemented in significant events. When implementing them, the audience expects an entirely infallible and unerring system, and if that purpose is not fulfilled, it will become a disruption. However, with time, the technologies are only bound to improve, and it will hopefully be an error-free innovation in the long run.


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