The outcome of the FIFA World Cup 2022 depends on learning algorithms.

What's new: The quadrennial championship tournament of football (known as soccer in the United States), which wraps up this week, is using machine learning to help human arbiters spot players who break a rule that governs their locations on the field.

How it works: The off-side rule requires that, when receiving a pass, members of the team that possesses the ball keep two opposing players between them and their opponents’ goal. Referees often call off-side erroneously depending on their vantage point on the field. FIFA introduced a Video Assisted Review system in 2018. The machine learning capabilities help human assistants in a remote video center identify violations.

  • The ball contains sensors that track its location and motion. The sensors send data to the remote facility 500 times per second.
  • Twelve cameras installed under a stadium’s roof capture gameplay from various angles. They transmit data 50 times per second.
  • In the remote facility, a computer vision system combines the data streams to track each player’s location and pose. It watches for off-side violations and alerts human officials when an offside player touches the ball.
  • Officials validate alerts manually. After review, the system generates a 3D animation of the event from multiple perspectives, which is broadcast on screens around the stadium and live feeds of the match.

Behind the news: AI is watching activity off the pitch as well. Qatari authorities use face recognition to monitor fans for unruly behavior. Authorities also use computer vision to track crowd size and movement to prevent the violence and crowd crushes that have marred recent matches.

Controversy: The semi-automated offside detection system has been criticized by players who say its role in referee decisions is unclear.

Why it matters: Players and fans alike expect referees to be both objective and omnipresent — which is, of course, impossible for anyone to accomplish. AI isn’t a perfect substitute, but it allows officials to observe the action at an unprecedented level of detail.

We're thinking: If FIFA hasn’t come up with a name for the system, we humbly suggest: Football Net.


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