Recently, the idea that robots can improve sports has gained momentum among the viewing population. Predominately, this idea pertains to referees. All sports need referees and all referees are prone to making mistakes, a few of which can alter the outcome of a game or an entire season. Ergo, replacing referees with robots would eliminate the possibility of human error and everyone would be content knowing if their team lost it wasn't because they got jobbed by an official missing a call.
As artificial intelligence becomes more advanced it seemed inevitable that the concept of robots improving sports would be pushed to its logical extreme eventually. That is how we find ourselves here today, reading an opinion article from The Guardian by soccer journalist Jonathan Liew calling for robot commentators:
The original football commentators emerged in an era when television was still a close cousin of radio, when the pictures were fuzzy and everyone needed a little help recognising which player was which. Does this still hold true in an age of 4K Ultra HD, names on shirts, augmented reality and overlay graphics?
The technology exists to identify players with far greater accuracy and speed than a human commentator ever could. In which case, what purpose does the human serve? If you were starting football from scratch, would you still have these guys chattering away in the background? If not, what’s the point of them now?
There is a sincere and a cynical answer to this question. Any decent commentator will argue that their job is not simply to narrate but to contextualise: to tell the story and explain why it matters. The problem is that this is not really how we interact with football any more. Most people these days watch the game while doing something else: travelling, cooking, entertaining friends, scrolling through social media. In the second-screen age the commentator serves a subtly different function.
I'm not shocked we reached this point but I am surprised it took this long. Glancing at social media during live events nowadays often gives one the impression that the audience hates announcers, no matter who it is. It's natural that the jump is made from robot officials to robot announcers.
That doesn't change the fact that robot announcers would suck. If I felt the commentary provided was so useless, I'd just mute the game. Having a Microsoft Sam voice tell me LeBron James has the ball is not a marked improvement over Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson swapping stories from the 1990s. To anybody who would argue otherwise, I point again to the mute button.
There are some good points made in the above article about the oversaturation of the industry and how absurd things can get when broadcasters attempt to separate themselves. No announcer is perfect. Robots would be much worse. Bland and uninteresting, the kind of first step towards dystopia you only read about.
Okay, maybe that's a little dramatic. But broadcasters add nuance, context, and emotion to the games they preside over. That's something no robot can replicate and something that many viewers appreciate. If they don't, there are easy ways around it that don't include throwing robots into the mix.
This will not be the last we hear of this idea. Bet on that much.