THE EYE OF THE MA­CHINE

The all-see­ing VAR sys­tem has pushed up the level of ac­cu­racy in de­ci­sions from 93% to 99%

Sunday Times - - Pulse - WORDS BY Claire Keeton

While watch­ing the open­ing games of the Fifa World Cup this week I was struck by a thought: with the world sup­pos­edly hurtling to­wards the in­evitable takeover of hu­man ac­tiv­ity by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, how long will it be be­fore sports tour­na­ments are played by ro­bots in­stead of hu­man be­ings? This may sound ab­surd be­cause part of the joy of sport is to en­counter the lev­els of fitness and train­ing hu­mans are able to achieve to be­come com­pet­i­tive, but, in a brave new world, wouldn’t it be equally in­ter­est­ing to watch one coun­try’s tech­nol­ogy square off against another’s?

While the ad­vent of sports tour­na­ments be­tween ro­bots may be some way into the fu­ture, the cur­rent World Cup fea­tures the in­tru­sion of tech­nol­ogy into the games in a more sub­tle way — the video ref­eree is be­ing used for the first time in a ma­jor tour­na­ment. Yes, this is the first ma­jor foot­ball com­pe­ti­tion in which de­ci­sions in all 64 games will be sub­ject to re­view by a team of off­pitch of­fi­cials watch­ing video footage of the game.

Fifa has ap­pointed 13 of­fi­cials to per­form the roles of VAR (video as­sisted ref­er­ee­ing). They op­er­ate from Fifa head­quar­ters in Moscow and each match has one VAR and a team of three as­sis­tants who have ac­cess to footage from 33 cam­eras, eight of which record in slow mo­tion. If the team dis­cov­ers an er­ror, the VAR con­tacts the ref­eree on the field via an ear­piece, ad­vis­ing him ei­ther of an er­ror, or that he should check a de­ci­sion him­self on a screen that’s mounted on a cov­ered pole to the side of the field. There are only four sit­u­a­tions in which the on-field ref­eree’s de­ci­sion is ques­tioned. These are: goals, penal­ties, red cards and cases of mis­taken iden­tity. But the de­ci­sion is ul­ti­mately left to the ref­eree at the game, in per­son.

The aim of the new tech­nol­ogy is to cut out quirks of per­cep­tion by of­fi­cials who may have sub­con­scious psy­cho­log­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ties that mar their de­ci­sion­mak­ing abil­ity, and to ul­ti­mately make the game fairer.

As view­ers we’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to the sight of stri­dent of­fi­cials in their neon kits puff­ing them­selves up to square off against protest­ing foot­ballers who’ve fallen foul of their de­ci­sions. For a long time the ref­eree has been unim­peach­able as he fid­dles with his ear­piece with a look as stern as the fault-fac­ing foot­baller’s look is men­ac­ing. He’s a fig­ure we love to hate. Now the in­tro­duc­tion of an elec­tronic el­e­ment threat­ens to di­min­ish the author­ity of the ref as well as the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing the game in the sta­dium as the ac­tion gets stopped so that screens can be watched.

Foot­balling of­fi­cials have to fol­low a fast-mov­ing, free-flow­ing game and they can’t watch all 22 play­ers at once. The re­al­ity of this is both an ar­gu­ment for and against the in­clu­sion of tech­nol­ogy in the matches. Though it makes the de­ci­sions more ac­cu­rate — the level of ac­cu­racy in­creased from 93% to 99%, re­ported Fifa of­fi­cials dur­ing tri­als of the tech­nol­ogy — it def­i­nitely does in­ter­rupt the flow of the game, and could over­rule goal cel­e­bra­tions in ret­ro­spect, which would be un­fair to sup­port­ers.

As a per­son who can’t help but feel some trep­i­da­tion about the hand­ing over of our hu­man agency, with all its fal­li­bil­ity, to ma­chines, I am re­luc­tant to be­lieve that VAR is not go­ing to di­min­ish the en­joy­ment of the game. Part of what we love about foot­ball is that it’s a lit­tle chaotic and open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, a lot more than other sports. Un­fair­ness, as it is in life, is part of the game — there are ques­tion­able goals as there are ques­tion­able fouls — and, we should re­mind our­selves, it’s not ul­ti­mately about win­ning or los­ing, it’s about how the game is played.

As Bar­ney Ronay of the Guardian news­pa­per puts it: “There is no ob­jec­tive truth in foot­ball. In­stead the idea is to play the game at the very edge of what is de­fined as foot­ball and what is de­fined as foul, an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of var­i­ous phys­i­cal move­ments that de­pends on the ap­pli­ca­tion of a set of de­scrip­tive words. What amounts to a grey area is it­self a grey area. The ar­eas for de­bate are al­ways up for de­bate.”

Ronay con­cludes: In the end it boils down to what you think sport is for. A dis­tantly con­sumed third­per­son spec­ta­cle, part of the dig­i­tal leisure ex­pe­ri­ence? Or a game that is a re­flec­tion of life, made up of mo­ments of ragged, oddly shaped, end­lessly eva­sive beauty.

Yes, Maradona scored a goal us­ing his hand in the 1986 tour­na­ment, which won Ar­gentina the quar­ter­fi­nal against Eng­land and won that goal the eter­nal ref­er­ence: “Hand of God” . This, of course, would have been over­ruled by VAR. But, as one foot­ball fan puts it, the “Hand of God” has a bet­ter ring to it than the “Eye of the Ma­chine”. LS

THE IDEA IS TO PLAY THE GAME AT THE EDGE OF WHAT IS FOOT­BALL AND WHAT IS FOUL

Gallo/Getty 123rf.com/ StephenCoburn

Kim Min-Woo of Korea Re­pub­lic fouls Vik­tor Claes­son of Swe­den, lead­ing to a VAR de­ci­sion penalty dur­ing their match on June 18. Be­low, The VAR room in the 2018 World Cup In­ter­na­tional Broad­cast Cen­tre.

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