Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and…. Football?

Throughout human history, sport has been considered as one of the highest expressions of the pure power, skill of the thinking, moving and breathing beings that we all are. Sport, with all its thrills and spills, passion and spirit, is quintessentially “human”. It therefore seems strange when there is talk of a technological revolution in sport. Where does sophisticated technology fit into the ever-changing equation of skill, luck, and determination that is sport?

There is an argument that the infiltration of technology will somehow take away the unpredictability and thrill that characterises the sporting world. Some fans believe that, in this world of high tech gadgets and futuristic technology, measures must be taken to “humanise” the game and preserve its spirit. They hide behind the rare failings of technology to protest against its use in sport.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Take, for example, the use of the Video Assistant Referee in football, where video replays are used to help the on-field referee do his job better and reduce human error. VAR isn’t perfect, but at present, using it is the closest we can get to eliminating mistakes in the game. No one wants a situation where your beloved club is disadvantaged by the limited human capabilities. VAR has, and will continue to face flak in the future, but it is important to realise what a significant step this is for the future of football. Amongst all the historic moments, there have been times when monumental sporting events might have turned out differently with the support of technology.

It is important for us to realise the scale of the technology being used in sport, and more importantly, its role. You won’t get to witness eleven robots take on Manchester United in front of 50,000 fans at Old Trafford, at least not anytime soon. In the foreseeable future, players and coaches will continue to be the chief protagonists in the journey. Technology was always meant to play the supporting cast, enhancing and enriching the sporting experience for those on and off the pitch.

In that respect, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning promise to be highly effective tools going forward. Imagine if you had an unbiased robot with terabytes of memory scour infinite amounts of data to find the next great player for your team. Imagine if you could have a machine analyse a player’s every movement and every step and predict his or her performance in the future. Imagine if coaches had a virtual assistant, helping them coax the best out of their players with effective strategies and innovative methods. The possibilities are endless.    

The cry for more technology in sport is now almost deafening. Technology is advancing every day. The sporting world must embrace it, or risk being rendered obsolete.    

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