Can technology in sports really outperform human insight?

Competitive sport is an emotionally charged activity with lots of money on the line. For those reasons and more, each and every decision is analyzed with detailed scrutiny. And this is why most professional sporting referees are being assisted with some degree of technological input.

This has been happening in some sports for years, if not decades. Famous examples include the “third umpire” in cricket or using Hawkeye in tennis. But in other sports, it has only just emerged, such as the same Hawkeye technology being implemented in football across the goal lines, along with the controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

By providing referees with technological tools and assistance, decisions should be more accurate, which benefits players, coaches and fans. It has even helped Bwin and other licensed bookmakers to offer a less controversial match betting service. But can technology really outperform human insight and decision making all of the time? Most of the time, it can and provides sport with a fairer result. But there have been occasions to question its use and the broader implication on watching sport.

Technology is prone to blunders

One issue with using technology is that it can malfunction or not work as it should. You’d think the chances of it not working in the heat of a single moment would be pretty rare, which it statistically is, but these errors have already been seen. In a live TV Premier League match between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, the Aston Villa goalkeeper appeared to drag the ball over his own goal line.

When the ball is 100% over the line, the referee is notified by a vibration on a unique wearable device. However, despite the referee believing the ball had crossed the line, his device did not vibrate, allowing the game to continue as though no goal had been scored. What had really happened is that the Hawkeye cameras were obscured by players and the goal post, preventing them from detecting the ball had indeed crossed the line. This is just one example of how human insight can outperform malfunctioning technology.

Considering the complete picture

Even when technology enhances refereeing decisions, we need to ask if using these technologies detracts from the sporting experience. When some referees need to make a decision on an incident, they may confer with other referees or have to watch numerous replays from different angles to come to a conclusion. This takes time and removes the impulsiveness and fast-paced action of sport that often makes it exciting.

Back in the Premier League, some fans have even stated they don’t celebrate when their team scores in the same way they did before technologies were introduced. Every goal is checked for a possible infringement that could mean the goal should be ruled out, and doing so puts doubt in fans’ minds that the goal may not count a few minutes later. This creates an apprehension to celebrate like they would pre refereeing technology.