As the world starts to slowly cede control of everything to artificial intelligence, there’s bound to be some growing pains. When a Scottish soccer team upgraded their stadium with live-streamed games courtesy of a ball-tracking, AI-powered camera, they failed to realise that, to a computer, a referee with a shaved and/or bald head would be nearly indistinguishable from a soccer ball.
As part of efforts to increase social distancing and protect its fans, a couple of weeks ago the Scottish Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC soccer club announced that it would be live-streaming all home games at its Caledonian Stadium to season ticket holders or those wishing to watch a specific game through a pay-per-view service. As part of the initiative, the club also revealed that it would be replacing human camera operators with a new automatic camera system from a company called Pixellot that leverages artificial intelligence to track the ball on the field and automatically keep the important action centered on screen.
At least, that was the plan.
According to the Pixellot website, to date over 500,000 sporting events have been broadcast using its AI-powered camera technology, but for whatever reason, a recent match between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ayr United proved too much of a challenge for the system to properly do its job. It wasn’t the weather that complicated things, but rather, one of the linesman referees was sporting a bald head that was apparently just bright enough, and just round enough, to be mistaken for a soccer ball.
YouTuber Chuckiehands edited together a highlight reel of the Pixellot system struggling to keep its focus on the real ball throughout the game. It mostly did its job as it should, but every so often, when the ball was obscured by players or shadows, the camera would quickly readjust and pan down to the linesman at the bottom of the screen momentarily before refocusing and returning to the ball again.
As frustrating as it must have been for paying fans of the team trying to watch the action at home, it’s also an amusing example of why relying solely on artificial intelligence, especially in its infancy, isn’t the best approach. But it’s a cautionary tale, too: If a computer has this much trouble distinguishing a human head from a soccer ball, do we really want autonomous cars making judgement calls on our roads?