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Automation in officiating

Updated: May 16

In this post-Covid era we are looking to moderise, economise and discover new ways of doing things in the attempt to discover what may become the ‘new normal’. This is especially so in sport where the impact of Covid-19 is expected to instigate significant change within the industry.

Frey & Osbourne (2013) investigated at the probability of computerization of 702 different occupations. Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials were in the top 3% of likelihood of computerization. This along with the rapid development and evolution of technology-assisted decision making we looked at the current technology utilised in various sports (below). While many elite-level sports have up taken technology, it is important to note video review or replay technology is generally reviewed by an operator and is susceptible to human factors/error.

Summary of technology-assisted officiating in select sports.

Current automated decision-making in officiating focuses on routine or repetitive decisions that can be computationally defined; such as a ball being ‘in’ or ‘out’. The volume of this type of decision making is sports specific. It is dependent upon how static or dynamic both the decision-making process (simple vs. complex) and decision-making positions are within the sport, for example, baseball vs. contact sports.

Interpretative rules are not yet subject to computerization, and by extension automation. Sports with more readily defined rules and fewer interpretational rules such as cricket and tennis currently have greater automation compared to those sports that are considered to have more ‘interpretative’ rules – more common in contact sports that involve interpretations of intent. Technological advances and the ability to computationally ‘simplify’ interpretations adjudication of complex decisions will become more probable. Some sports may even consider innovating interpretative or ‘grey’ areas within their rules should they wish to adopt such technology. Furthermore, computerisation of cognitive tasks has the ability to both prevent lapses of concentration and remove human bias.

This is not to say the role of the on-field/on-court official will become redundant in sport. Sport values the management role performed by officials, as equally as decision making in many cases. So called ‘social intelligence tasks’, of which includes player management, technology is not sufficiently advanced to assist or substitute officials yet. Recognition of natural human emotion remains a challenging problem, and the ability to respond intelligently to such inputs is even more difficult.

Predictions of the impact of computerisation on categories of selected officiating tasks (adapted from Autor, 2003)

Technology, and by extension automation, will continue to impact us all. The question is to what extent and how quickly? The rapid pace of tasks defined as non-routine, such as driving a vehicle across a busy intersection, only a decade ago have now become fully computerizable – que Google’s self-driving car. However, for now, the timings of equivalent sports-specific applications are largely limited by advancements of sensing and computational technology. While the aim of automation in officiating is to ultimately provide more accurate and consistent decision-making, we still highly value the human element. After all, in a new world who would we yell at when the (technically correct) call goes against your team?


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