Technology Scores a Goal but Humans Still Control the Game
The FIFA World Cup tournament takes place every four years, but the 2014 event, which kicks off on June 12 in Brazil, has something that makes it unique: tracking technology.
This year, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s international governing body, is introducing goal-line technology to the World Cup that helps referees decide whether or not a goal has been scored. This technology worked without a glitch at last year’s FIFA Confederation Cup.
The technology may seem extraneous given that scoring is the whole point of the game, and allowing or disallowing goals has been part of the ref’s job since soccer balls were made of animal hide.
Yet sometimes referees get it wrong; they award goals wrongly or disallow ones that are legitimate. A goal is scored when the ball crosses the white line, or goal line, that stretches between the goal posts. That appears straightforward enough, but miscalls occur for a number of reasons.
First, soccer is a fast game that has become even faster, and referees don’t have the luxury of instant replays. They must make quick decisions based on what their eyes—and other officials—tell them. Second, during a game the goalmouth can be a crowded place, making it difficult to keep track of the ball’s position. Third, the complete ball has to cross the line to qualify as a goal. This technicality requires the referee to know whether or not every inch of a speeding plastic orb clears a thin strip of white paint while following as much of the playing action as possible.
On rare occasions the calls are spectacularly wrong. For example, during the second-round game between England and Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a shot from an English player hit the German crossbar, bounced down, and as replays showed, cleared the line by a wide margin. However, the Uruguayan referee failed to award the goal that would have leveled the score for England.
Hopefully, such embarrassments will now be eliminated from the World Cup. The match referee still makes the ultimate decision, but with the support of tracking technology that is not prone to human error.
In Brazil, each of the 12 World Cup stadiums is equipped with 14 high-speed cameras, with seven cameras trained on each goalmouth. The cameras continuously track the ball’s position in 3D. When there is a goal scoring incident, the system automatically alerts the match officials within one second whether or not the ball crossed the goal-line. The officials receive the information on their wrist watches.
Tradition and worries over the technology’s accuracy and timeliness are among the reasons why it has taken so long to apply automation to this critical decision. The Premier League in England started using the technology last year.
Will the floodgates now open? How about soccer balls embedded with sensors to measure key metrics? Adidas recently launched a smart soccer ball that relays data on how hard the ball has been struck, its flight trajectories, and spin rates.
Are we close to a fully automated soccer game where wired fields and instant analytics obviate the need for human referees? Not likely. These technology systems compensate for human fallibility, but complicated decisions—how a player should be penalized for an illegal tackle, for instance—still require human judgment.
The same can be said for supply chains, where the use of tracking technology to monitor important events is commonplace. Freight flows have become faster and the margin for error has shrunk dramatically, making real time or near real time tracking systems a competitive necessity.
In supply chain applications a “goal” is scored when milestones are reached such as an on time delivery. And we can now store the data in the cloud, which helps us keep an eye on the entire “game” as it plays out in the global arena. Tracking data is used in the measurement of key metrics and to analyze performance.
Some segments have taken full advantage of automation. High-tech transshipment sites in Hamburg, Germany, and Rotterdam, Netherlands, for example, do not need human operators. Poke your head into a modern distribution center where robots do much of the work and you might think that the non-human supply chain has arrived.
However, end-to-end supply chains still need human “referees” to interpret data and make decisions. Customers change their minds; unexpected situations arise.
Automated systems can tell whether a ball or a shipment has crossed a certain threshold, but dealing with the subtleties of human behavior still requires the human touch.
Besides, without arguments over controversial decisions, what would we talk about at the water cooler?