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A sporting chance: will human risk-reducing AI make sport less watchable?

As the use of data becomes more prevalent in sport, guest blogger and sports fan Miles Groom explores whether the use of Artificial Intelligence in sport to reduce human risk might actually make it less watchable.

Sports and its athletes are increasingly being recorded, analysed, then performances being converted into data points and their matches codified. This is followed by in-depth AI and predictive analytics, which is being used to identify winning techniques and patterns of play. With the market for data analytics in sport expected to reach $4billion by 2022, is playing by the percentages provided through analytics as opposed to taking risks the way forward in sport?

For many sports, the numbers game has been a vital aspect for improvement and preparation, with football teams analysing other teams goalkeepers position during penalties to basketball teams using data analytics to identify a team's favourite attacking combination. But for tennis, it has rarely been seen as a numbers game until very recently, but it is now becoming more and more institutionalized within the sport. With tennis, it is not hard to see why data and predictive analytics has not been used to their maximum use, with inconsistency in scoring where players can lose more points or games but still win the match, to its variety in surfaces which can impact a players game style and the shots they choose to play on that court.

However, with tennis adopting analytics more and more, it may be the way forward. Players can discover which patterns of play are most effective against their opponent, which direction of serve will win them the most points and finally, what rally length will be the hardest for their opponents to endure. Infosys, a data analytics consulting service and Official Digital Innovation Partner to The Australian Open — the Tennis Grand Slam recently held in Melbourne — is leveraging the cloud of analytics in tennis with AI and 3D Court Vision. From shot placement to ball spin to speed on the serve, the AI Video Analysis feature covers every aspect of a players game. The feature allows players to closely examine their opponents game, be it their weakest shot or their ability to withstand the players monstrous forehand.

But we must ask ourselves to what extent will predictive analysis and AI affect the human element of our sport...

Will players be happy to follow the lead of a computer rather than their feelings and sensations? Will spectators want to watch the same patterns of play? Will the element of surprise and risk be taken out of the game by percentage play? Will coaches eventually be replaced by computers?

For sure, we watch sport for precision formed out of hours and hours of work on the practice court and behind the scenes, but we also watch sport for the randomness and risk-taking - those small moments of brilliance that only last a couple of seconds but remain in our head for years to come. And these moments of brilliance is what brings popularity to our game. Take Australian player Nick Kyrgios, one of the most entertaining faces in the game of tennis. Who would you prefer to watch, Kyrgios or British player Andy Murray? For the majority of supporters, Krygios would be the choice to watch.

Although not as good as Murray, his antics and risk-taking in his game on court entices the crowd, bringing not only revenue and popularity

to the game but also a sense of human element that could not be replicated with the use of AI. His recent thrilling match vs Thiem displayed his undisputed talent — an underarm serve helping him win the second set and getting into a dream start — however, a ridiculous through the legs shot proved the turning point in the match. Perhaps the day AI takes over, we will no longer be able to live through pivotal moments like this in sport.

So perhaps without risk-taking, maybe the biggest risk of all, is that sport will become too predictable and will our beautiful games eventually be controlled and predicted by the mathematical mind of the computer?


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