An omnipotent robot referee? Is the ‘myth of inerrancy’ possible?

The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) has made a decision. It has been decided to introduce ‘robot referees’ starting next year. It is a world first, ahead of the major leagues.

Although it is called a ‘robot referee’, it does not mean that a robot appears and makes the decision. Cameras and sensors installed in the stadium measure the position, speed, and angle of the ball thrown by the pitcher, then determine whether it is a ball or strike and deliver it to the umpire. The correct name is ‘ABS (automatic ball-strike system)’.

In baseball, the strike zone is subjective. Although the baseball rules describe strike decisions in relative detail, the umpire’s judgment inevitably intervenes. It has become common knowledge that strike zones differ from country to country. It will be easier to understand if you think of scenes such as a foreign pitcher expressing dissatisfaction with a ball call, or a foreign batter throwing his helmet after a strike call. ‘Adapting to the strike zone’ was always a topic that came up after using porridge in international competitions. There are also problems where it is not easy to intuitively detect a ‘misjudgment’, such as a ‘safe-out’ decision during video review.

Voices of welcome are coming from across the baseball world. Although complaints have not been raised about ball and strike decisions in all games, it is true that there has been distrust in the fairness of umpires among domestic professional baseball players. The jagged strike zone, which is evaluated differently depending on the umpires’ personal tendencies, has also been pointed out as a subject of controversy. Most of the cases where coaches or players were ejected were due to strikes or ball decisions. Now, it seems only a matter of time before ‘fairness’ and ‘reliability’ are secured in ball-strike decisions.

However, blind faith that robot referees and ABS are omnipotent is dangerous. Whether ABS is a perfect technology is something that needs to be considered. In high school baseball, ABS has already been fully introduced this year, and ball-strike decisions are being made, but there is controversy over the ‘accuracy of the decision’.

On April 11, in the finals of the ‘2nd Shinsegae E-Mart Cup National High School Baseball Tournament’ held at SSG Landers Field in Incheon, a pitcher’s parabolic breaking ball that fell to the ground in front of the home plate in front of the batter was ruled a strike. At the ‘Golden Lion Tournament’ held at Mokdong Stadium in May, the number of walks increased and became the subject of criticism. This is because all balls that seemed to be in the strike zone were ruled as balls. As the number of missed balls continued, the Korea Baseball Softball Association (KBSA) reset the strike zone for the robot umpire.

Since the KBO has been piloting the system in the Futures League (2nd team) since the 2020 season, it is confident that it can be introduced to the 1st team from the 2024 season. However, what the KBO focuses on seems to be the time it takes to make a decision. In the early days of the introduction of the second team, there was a problem of increasing game time due to the time taken to determine ball-strike, but this was reduced to the level of the major league. The KBO, which emphasizes speed-up, must have thought that the time had come and decided to introduce the first team.

However, the accuracy of the decision is shrouded in mystery. The on-site reaction was a lot of disappointment about the height of the strike zone. Like the high school baseball case mentioned above, it is said that there were cases where a strike call was made to a ball that the players, referees, and spectators could not understand. It has not been publicized because the 2nd group receives relatively less attention, but there are concerns that if it is applied to the 1st group immediately, a controversy comparable to the current decision controversy will arise.

KBO President Heo Heo-yeon appeared as a witness at the National Assembly Culture, Sports and Tourism Committee audit on the 24th and explained, “We are developing a program that passes from the start point to the end point.” The decision was made to introduce a program that has not yet been developed. Of course, the plan is to improve the level of completeness after the introduction of video review, as was done in the early days of introduction, but it is facing criticism that the first-team league could easily become an ‘experimental stage for robot referees or ABS’.

Above all, the point that the ‘myth of infallibility’ regarding AI (artificial intelligence)-based platforms such as robot referees is an ‘illusion’ must be taken seriously. In the context of AI-based algorithms, the hope that technology will open a rational and unbiased era is closer to a ‘delusion’ than an ‘illusion’. Since humans are also the ones who create algorithms, the reality is that biases from the real world are transplanted and absorbed into search engines, social media algorithms, etc.

For example, when you search for professional occupations such as ‘lawyer’ or ‘accountant’ on a search engine, the image that appears is mainly ‘white male’. These real-world biases are bound to be reflected in sports decisions based on AI algorithms.

The fact that the entity that develops and operates ABS is a general company may also cause another controversy about fairness. Although it will be controlled by sports organizations such as the KBO, there are also concerns about whether proper control over specialized technology will be possible.

The reason the Major League, which originally considered introducing ABS, postponed its introduction was to set up a strike zone. Although it was introduced in the minor league Triple A, it was not completely introduced, with about half of the ball-strike decisions being made by a robot and the other half by the existing human umpire, due to doubts about the strike zone set by a computer.

Of course, AI or robot referees are the trend of the times. The semi-automatic offside system introduced at the 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup held last year received favorable reviews. The problem is harmony with human judgment. Semi-automatic offside had a strong character as an auxiliary role to human decisions.

Robot referees are effective as a means to compensate for human errors. However, the perception that technology makes perfect decisions is something to reconsider. This is a blind belief that robot referees are omnipotent or infallible.스포츠토토

Fairness and trust in judgment arise from the point where errors are acknowledged. The introduction of robot referees such as ABS should also be considered in this regard.

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