AI may yet replace human judges in gymnastics

LONDON • A light blinks on the black box alerting the gymnast to begin her routine. She launches off the vault, lands and turns to salute the robotic judge. Her score is already flashing on the big screen to the Olympic crowd and millions of viewers at home, who have followed the live scoring as the move is dissected in real time.

This is not a scene from Blade Runner 2049, but a possible vision of gymnastics' future as it races to include artificial intelligence (AI) in its judging system.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is planning to introduce the AI technology to assist scoring at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, as long as the International Olympic Committee's partner for timekeeping and results approves.

Japanese IT giant Fujitsu, which is developing the 3D sensory system, says the product will help make scoring easier, assist coaches and athletes in training, and offer broadcast viewers in-depth, unparalleled coverage that already has Japanese pundits gushing.

Fujitsu, which is focused on tracking the vault apparatus since it is shared by men and women, is analysing and gathering data from routines to calibrate its software.

MACHINE OVER MAN

A judge must work for eight hours per day - does that allow the mental capacity to remain coherent? It's not possible to maintain a coherent mind of criteria. Only the computer does.

BRUNO GRANDE, former FIG president, on a robotic judge's ability to outlast a human judge.

The goal? The FIG wants judges to have a quick go-to option to speed up delays in scoring, ensure every nuance of an athlete's performance is recorded and avoid controversial decisions.

"A judge must work for eight hours per day - does that allow the mental capacity to remain coherent? It's not possible to maintain a coherent mind of criteria. Only the computer does," said former FIG president Bruno Grande.

But there are stumbling blocks. While the technology has been years in development, the rapid push to rely on a so-far untested platform on one of sport's grandest stages could provide concerns.

Hackers could see an opportunity to discredit the sport or sway results, judges could find themselves sidelined, and gymnasts' creativity may ultimately be reined in.

"Gymnasts are known for pushing the skills, looking for new angles, turns, points - so what happens when someone comes along with a totally different routine that has not been seen or registered by the computer," Olympic great Nadia Comaneci said at last month's World Championships in Montreal. "How would that be judged?"

Technical coordinator Steve Butcher, who is the FIG's point-man on the project, admits judges are a little nervous about a technology that will alter "the way we judge".

"A programme like this can be helpful for settling issues or technical questions," he said. "This is not to replace judges - not any time soon. We'll never say that one day we'll only be using a computer. But who is to say in 20 years from now if things will be different."

Athletes and judges know little about the technology, which was unveiled - but not used in an official capacity - at the World Championships. The testing starts with next year's World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

The FIG's president Morinari Watanabe is adamant it will be ready after being elected into office on a platform of innovation.

"We must be ready for 2020," he said. "We have a responsibility to give the gymnasts the correct score. We cannot accept an incomplete score from a judge in this time."

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2017, with the headline 'AI may yet replace human judges in gymnastics'. Print Edition | Subscribe