Robot umpires

Why do we still have human baseball umpires?

Of the four major American sports, baseball seems best-suited to computerized referees (hereafter, “robots”). In hockey, football, and basketball, the action happens quickly, in multiple places, and in infinite variation. America’s pasttime moves slowly, focuses on a single location, and allows relatively little improvisation. Baseball umps stand still, stare in one direction, and make straightforward observations (e.g. “Did the ball pass through the strike zone?” and “Did the ball or the runner get there first?”). It seems likely that a well-tuned robot would out-ump a middle-aged man, weighed down with gear, secret allegiances, and consummate dramatic flair.

Professional tennis has already deployed a camera-and-computer system for tracking the ball’s trajectory. “Hawk-Eye” does not supplant the umpire (yet), but it is authoritative in player appeals. Could something similar work in baseball? In fact, it already does. PITCHf/x determines a pitch’s location, speed, and movement almost instantaneously. Why not perfect this pitch-perceiving tool, then make its rulings canonical?

America’s theater

If accuracy were the only issue, this might make sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.

In fact, sometimes we celebrate inaccuracy. We love the fact that umpires sometimes get it wrong. They add uncertainty to what might otherwise devolve into a rote arithmetic exercise. Baseball, after all, is a simple game. Hit the ball, run the bases, beat the tag. But with umpires on the field, every play is a potential revelation. Did he see it? Will he get it right? The stadium holds its breath, waiting for the ump to twirl his finger (“Home run!”) or punch out the incredulous victim of a wicked knuckler.

Sports is not math. It’s America’s theater. We love drama, and drama needs actors. The ump plays his part: conductor of cheers when our ace rings one up. Sparring partner for a feisty manager. Arch-villain when things go wrong. And robots make terrible actors. Why bother booing an algorithm–especially if it’s 99.99+% accurate? Does booing even make sense when there’s no one standing behind the catcher?

As Gerard Martin writes, “While artificial intelligence may provide a superior solution on balls and strikes, there is no technological substitute for an umpire’s ability to control the emotional aspects of the game.” Sure, robots make more accurate calls. But who cares? Robots would out-pitch humans, too, but no one wants a machine on the mound. It’s not about perfection; it’s about story.

Robot actors

So, there we are. Humans are inaccurate and robots are impersonal. Something’s got to give.

Could robots someday handle the dramatic role? Here are some thoughts on how this might look:

  • Wherever the computers, cameras, or lasers end up, put an avatar on the field itself. Tennis’ disembodied squawk just won’t fly. Fans need somewhere to look and (more importantly) direct their boos. Give them a mechanical man, a bank of lights, a press box section to yell at—anything.
  • Develop real artificial intelligence—computers with personality. Program the robo-ump to glory in a ninth-inning strike out, to belly-up to an argumentative manager, and to stare down a borderline pitch before making its call.
  • Make each city’s ump unique. Even if the underlying algorithm is identical at every ballpark, make its visible manifestation different. The Yankees might project a CG Yogi Berra on the Jumbotron. Detroit might build a Transformers™-esque Ford truck behind home plate. Boston could make the Green Monster bellow balls and strikes.

Augmented umps

These are terrible ideas. Rather than dressing up machines like people, let’s give our human umps better tools. We’ve already got decent data; why not make it available to the umpire?

Once the tech makes it feasible, MLB umps might rely on an augmented reality system, integrated into their masks. In real-time, a heads-up display could draw the strike zone, and each pitch would paint its path as it crosses home plate. TV broadcasts would have access to this video feed, too, and fans could access it on the web.

Until such technology is available, a wireless headset could enable conversations between the on-field ump and booth officials, plugged into the computer. Or, to keep the game moving, uncertain umps could tap a button and have the calculated verdict automatically piped to their earphones. Such solutions would preserve the ump’s starring role, but give him more direction during the show’s big scenes.