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Opportunity or risk as sport races ahead with AI?

Tan KW
Publish date: Sat, 10 Jun 2023, 03:42 PM
Tan KW
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BERLIN: Will sports coaches, managers and scouts soon be redundant? Will the dream team line-up, best substitutions and hottest transfers be just a key-push away with the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI)?

The sports industry is reluctant to reveal the full extent of its success in implementing this technology. But AI experts say people shouldn't fear the advent of a soulless, computer-shaped sporting reality.

"I'm sure it won't come to that - and as a football fan, I hope not too," says Tim Schröder, a product developer for online platform Plaier looking to revolutionize player scouting with AI.

"People need other people as reference partners," Schröder tells dpa. "Technology is just an aid." And used as such, AI could improve the quality of sport, he believes.

But the developer is a realist too: "The future cannot be stopped and that future will also be increasingly determined by AI in sport."

Naturally, the early adopters of such technology will have a head start, says Schröder, without seeing an immediate threat of this eroding the essence of sporting competition.

The Institute for Applied Training Science (IAT) in the eastern German city of Leipzig, where AI is now mainly used in biomechanics, takes a similar view.

"AI is not a risk in our field, but an opportunity to generate more data in less time," says Björn Mäurer, a scientific expert for sports informatics.

At IAT, the movements of a skier or discus thrower are filmed and evaluated with software and the athlete is tagged with AI-supported recording systems. Internationally, Germany is "well placed" in this respect, says Mäurer, "but China is probably further ahead."

Given the overall secrecy in high-tech development, the question of what AI can already do in sport is not easy to answer.

"Artificial intelligence can help structure data, show conspicuous features and reduce the amount of data in such a way that people can deal with it better," says sports scientist Carlo Dindorf from Germany's Technical University of Kaiserslautern-Landau.

In lesser forms, though, AI has long been part of everyday sports life, as many people already use "fitness trackers" providing information on stress and fatigue reactions, for example.

At the German cycling team Bora-hansgrohe, six people are working on the daily processing of the vast amounts of data on wattage, pulse and much more. In Formula 1, data analysis has been influencing race strategy for many years, and the use of AI via software companies is also being intensified here.

In professional football, Plaier wants to take player scouting to a new level by means of specially developed AI using real-time analysis of the playing system and squad. The results are linked to data on over 100,000 players who are recorded in the system and weighted according to their abilities in relation to the club looking for them.

In this systematic approach, the AI learns from historical data and forecasts. Plaier's co-founder Jan Wendt offers customers the prospect of a 90% hit probability for transfers: "We don't say, 'That could happen', but we say 'This is happening and will look like this in the next six years'."

The German Ski Association (DSV) is still in the early stages of using AI, but initial tests, for example in the selection of waxes, have been "very promising," according to Karlheinz Waibel, DSV national coach for science and technology.

At the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, it had been possible to find out more quickly with AI programmes than with conventional ski tests which texture of ski was best suited to the cross-country track, Waibel told the Rheinische Post newspaper.

"The added value is great. But you have to want to afford it," Waibel said of the accompanying need for major investment in the technology.

Meanwhile, coaches will remain essential to sports, he expects: "The coach is still very important. After all, data does not explain everything. Knowledge, experience and last but not least, soft skills are just as important as AI to advance the athlete."

Mäurer from the IAT also warns of "increased risk" if decisions are handed over to AI in its current state. If, for example, the technical evaluation in sports such as apparatus gymnastics were completely left to the computer, "it could definitely be manipulated via the software - and not in a sporting way, but technologically."

In sport, the data sets are still relatively small, but that will change with the increasing use of AI. It is data-hungry - and the more it is fed, the greater the output.

Austria's national football coach Ralf Rangnick, who prides himself on thinking outside the box, predicts "unimagined possibilities" when it comes to AI in sport: "The more AI develops, the more data volume, the more information there is, the more you can get out of it," he says.

 - dpa

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