Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of The Olympics, Unbiased Judging, And Technology

Over the years, the Games have not gone untainted. Incidents, controversies and scandals have hounded the Olympics, giving the media more news to report and people additional topics to talk about.

One such controversy occurred in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games figure skating competition, where the judges gave a higher score to the Russians over the Canadians despite an error committed by the former in the free skate routine and a flawless execution by the latter. The Russians got the gold medal while the Canadians had to settle for silver. The French Judge later admitted to having received pressure from the head of the French skating organization to vote for the Russian pair no matter what. In the end, the silver medal of the Canadians were upgraded to gold while the Russians were allowed to keep theirs. The French Judge and the head of the French skating organization were subsequently suspended. The long term effect is the revision of the sport's judging system.

Considering today's hi-tech world, shouldn't judging scandals be the easiest to avoid in the future? Wouldn't everyone be better off by keeping the subjective aspects of judging down to a minimum, if not totally eliminated? Can we consider relying more on computers instead of human judges?

Take a look at the advent of the Hawk-Eye system and it's part in the adjudication process in the game of tennis. The Hawk-Eye allows visual tracking of the ball's path, recording of data, and the retrieval and rendering of that actual path as a graphic image. The system, which was invented by UK engineers, are based on triangulation and relies on visual images and timing data from high speed video cameras around the court. With the Hawk-Eye in Tennis, players are allowed to challenge line calls they feel doubtful about. In the Olympics, I've seen the Hawk-Eye in action last night at the semi-final match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Of course such computer systems may not be perfect especially in their early implementations. Even the Hawk-Eye didn't go unscathed with some minor controversies in the 2007 Dubai Tennis Championships and the 2007 Wimbledon Championships. But over time, just like humans, they get better. Except that they don't die, get influenced or become biased.

Ian Ayres showed in Super Crunchers how number crunching is changing the world of decision-making. Super Crunching, also according to Ayres, is more a story of advances in technology instead of statistical techniques. It relies on tons of data (terabytes, to put it more accurately) and processing. That equates to disk space and CPU, both of which are relatively cheaper nowadays.

Ayres also gives an explanation why humans are bad at making predictions and how "our best and brightest experts in different fields are losing out to Super Crunching". Part of his explanation states that "the mind tends to suffer from a number of well-documented cognitive failings and biases that distort our ability to predict accurately." I agree with him and I argue that these same cognitive failings and biases coupled with our limitations in terms of perception give us reason to make judging errors. Is that an obvious point, one that justifies the familiar expression "We're only human"? Unfortunately, the athletes who practice day-in and day-out in their quest for near-perfection are the ones who suffer most because of such lapses. Quoting Alanis Morissette, isn't that ironic?

I thought about making this entry after watching a portion of a synchronized diving event. The four of us watching couldn't figure out why a pair who were obviously not in sync got a higher score over a team who did a better job than them.

"Aren't the judges allowed to look at the slo-mo replay?" one of my companions asked.

"It's because they're from _____________," another theorized.

My mind was already forming weird ideas on how to possibly automate judging in synchronized diving. The first that came to mind was making use of invisible lasers that registered and tracked movements as the divers moved through the air and into the water, similar to the ones used in museums to prevent theft only at a much wider scale. But couldn't the Hawk-Eye system be simply tweaked to cater to this? Are advances in face-recognition software helpful? Can this be applied to gymnastics as well?

What about boxing? Can they make the boxers wear a headgear plus some sort of body armor with embedded sensors that get turned on and register impact when either of the opponent's gloves makes contact? Can they re-hash the ones used for fencing? Can this be applied to judo, taekwando, wresting and other contact sports?

Rather than dropping judged sports from the Olympics as some suggest, I prefer making use of technology to give whole new meaning to the term judging. I don't think it's a question of feasibility; the technology to make it happen already exists. I'm guessing that it's only a matter of time. I'm not as worried about those people who would argue that this might signal the end of the artistic and human side of judging as I am about those who would reject the idea in the interest of greater glory.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home