Robot referees: Salvation or scourge?

Jay Busbee
·2 min read

Your phone can unlock itself at the sight of your face. Satellites track you almost anywhere on Earth. Algorithms predict your behavior so thoroughly that it can seem more like witchcraft than science.

So why the heck can’t robots call balls and strikes?

They can, of course. But should they? That’s the focus of the latest SportSciQ from Yahoo Sports and StarTalk.

“[Artificial Intelligence] will call a game better, faster and more accurately than any human,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, co-host of SportSciQ. “That’s the whole point of AI.”

How would such a scenario work? Using 5G to push massive amounts of data, to start. Each NFL player is already tracked; it’s how we get almost real-time schematics of player movement on the field and next-gen stats about their speed and acceleration. It wouldn’t be a difficult proposition to include more sensors that would account for, say, the ball’s location in space relative to the end zone or the first-down line.

But be careful what you wish for. Yes, AI would render instant, incontrovertible judgments. No more challenges, no more replays, no more using index cards to see whether a team got a first down. A virtual whistle would sound, a play would end, and the result would be displayed instantly on the scoreboard. Over, done, on to the next one.

Consider, though, what would be lost: the drama of a frame-by-frame replay where we all become instant experts on whether a football scrapes over a blade of grass. The hold-your-breath moment as a chain gang marches out onto the field to see if a team made a crucial first down. For some, it’s unnecessary fluff; for others, it’s essential drama.

Balls and strikes are easy enough for AI to handle. Field goals and 3-pointers are no problem at all. But hey, you want to impress us? Get AI to define what constitutes a catch. Then we’ll be all in.

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