It’s the 89th minute at Magnolia Hart Lane.
Benjamin Aguero knocks the ball past Kyle Walker-Peters Walker-Peters and enters the box. Kai Rooney slides in to stop him. Limbs everywhere. There’s a deep intake of breath. Everyone in the ground looks to the referee.
M1ke Deanbot, perfectly positioned, points its robotic arm towards the penalty spot, does a flamboyant 360-degree turn and wheels away.
From plane simulators to trading, robot-led factories to hospitals, artificial intelligence is rapidly weaving its way into our day-to-day lives.
You might not realise it, but every word you’ve just read was written by a robot. If you spot any errors, blame Will.i.am Shakespeare.
So how long until we see AI referees in football? No more fighting over fractional offside calls. An end to referees getting slaughtered for failing to make decisions that aren’t humanly possible to make. Should our humble human refs be sweating over their prospective job prospects?
It’s not a simple answer. Technology is never straightforward, as anyone who’s watched their mum trying install a new iPhone can verify.
Rohit Talwar and Steve Wells, Futurists at Fast Future, believe we’re close to an AI breakthrough, saying: “The potential speed of developments means we could well see the possibility of referees being replaced with AI technology long before the 2026 World Cup.
“The advancements in the underlying technology make this situation entirely possible, but the first question is whether this is desirable, and the next is whether such perfect decision making would take away some of the human element that makes the game so appealing.”
“AI could eliminate uncertainty around borderline calls, using a combination of cameras around the ground and sensors on the players’ bodies.
“In situations such as simulation, we could use AI to recognise body language and compare each incident to a database of past incidents from thousands of games to determine the likelihood of it being a genuine foul, a trip, or a dive.
“To stop fights, the Referee AI could be monitoring information collected from the players’ bodies to determine if they are getting angry and dispatch overhead drones to track the most at-risk players at any one time, swooping in to lift the player away from the action at the first hint of a flare up.
“Equally, the AI could analyse statistics across a player’s entire playing history to determine if they are likely to get involved in a fight and then direct the drones to track those players most at risk of creating an incident.
“When it comes to game management, AI could be applied at a higher level to perform continuous and forensic analysis of a club’s spending in real time. This would help detect unlawful payments to players and agents, clubs falling foul of financial fair play rules, and spot unusual patterns of spending that could suggest misuse of funds.”
The prospect of Lee Cattermole being swooped out of the Stadium of Light after losing his head for the 6,798th time is a tantalising glimpse of what could be around the corner.
But, before you get too excited, Futurist Ben Hammersley doesn’t believe the arrival of AI is imminent, saying: “Not AI, but referees could very well be enhanced with technology with things like offside detection from overhead cameras.
“The problem with AI is around discreation: how do you program an AI to allow play to continue (or not) at critical moments? There is a lot of leeway given at crucial times during a match that requires human judgement.
“An easy example is asking why football games don’t have a buzzer to end them, rather than a bloke judging when to blow his whistle? It would change the nature of the game, and people generally hate that. The same can be said for video replays.”
Fellow Futurist Richard Watson holds a similar belief that there would be conflict between the very nature of the game and AI.
“If it’s purely a matter of enforcing the rules and the rules are clear then yes, AI could work,” Watson said.
“But surely it’s the spirit of the law sometimes and decisions are not always clear cut? Would managers and fans would be happy with an AI? Goal-line technology points in the direction of an AI, but my gut says no.”
It’s clear that, whether the technology for AI within football is forthcoming or not, there is a decision to be made about how far we move away from the human element. The reaction to football’s latest technological evolution- video assistant referees- supports a general distrust of technology in the game.
That distrust stems from our need to argue. If football becomes clinical and incontrovertible then we lose so much of the narrative that goes with supporting our team, and following football in general.
Sir Geoff Hurst’s 1966 World Cup goal is still talked about more than half a century later. Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ is one of the most iconic strikes in Champions League history. To make that statement about a goal that dribbled in from three yards speaks volumes about its controversy.
Football fans are an emotional bunch. Passing up these moments in favour of guaranteed accuracy around decision-making therefore isn’t a straightforward choice.
Nick Bostrom, founder of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, thinks Mike Dean can breathe safe, saying: “It looks quite difficult to me. I wouldn’t expect it to happen soon.”
VAR’s performance in the Champions League round of 16 proved that, even if the technology is available, as long as it’s operating within a human structure there will always be room for error. Whether AI would remove that human error, or simply add to it, remains to be seen.
It might be the case that certain parts of football, for example diving, becoming fully operated by AI while a human referee is in place to maintain the greyer areas of the rule book.
Don’t tender your letter of resignation just yet, Deano.
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