Robot referees – good or bad?

The Engineer

The world cup is just weeks away, England’s cricketers are heading home for a summer of test matches and tennis fans are looking forward to their annual Wimbledon fix.

But while the players wow and entertain the crowds with their heroics, skills and tantrums, this summer’s packed schedule of sports will also give a host of technologies the chance to grab some of the glory.

From training equipment bristling with sensors, sportswear fashioned from the latest performance-enhancing materials or new innovations in broadcasting, engineering  and technology are increasingly closely related to sport.

And perhaps nowhere is this relationship at its most pronounced and controversial than when technology is used as a decision making tool.

The application of technology to make tough calls in the heat of a competition divides opinion. Some believe the umpire or referee should retain all responsibility, that human error is a desirable and dramatic part of the game, others that technology, if deployed correctly can improve the spectacle.

Tennis and Cricket have been perhaps the biggest adopters. Hawkeye, the ball trajectory prediction system, is now widely used in Tennis and occasionally in test match cricket, which has also made use of “hot spot” thermal imaging technology to determine whether a batsman has hit a ball. Meanwhile the use of Hawkeye in football, where it’s been proposed for making goal-line decisions is also the subject of fevered debate.

From an engineering perspective the application of technology to sport is a good thing: it’s a fascinating field that helps broaden the appeal of engineering and also, critically, offers a proving ground for technology ultimately destined for non-sporting applications. The ability to predict the trajectory of a spinning, swerving object or the use of thermal imaging systems to detect impact zones can easily be applied to other sectors. More cynically perhaps, the sports sector is a wholesome shop window for companies that could do with all the good publicity they can muster.

But where will it all end? In its bid proposal for the 2022 football world cup, Japan has promised the most high-tech event in the competition’s history. What are the chances that by then, the country which has led the world in the development of robots will bring us robotic referees with a neat multilingual line in put-downs for truculent players and imaging systems able to spot a dive in a nanosecond?

While we’re at it, if decision making in something as important as a football match is left to robots, why not replace our politicians with them? They certainly wouldn’t need a second home (they could just be switched off and plugged in by the cleaners at night) and they’d almost certainly make logical decisions.

What do you think of the use of technology to solve sporting dilemmas? As always, we welcome all of your comments.
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