sports science

Olympics Flashbacks: The science of robot refs and why they still suck

Robots could change the way we play sports, but should they?


Eric Griffin was a favorite to win gold when he arrived at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. A two-time world champion, Griffin was the team's "heart" and "backbone," according to his coach Joe Byrd. Every day leading up to the match, alone in a Houston garage, the 106-pound lightweight champion did 2,000 sit-ups followed by 10-mile runs.

In addition to being Griffin's Olympic debut, it was also the debut of a brand-new scoring system for Olympic boxing that relied on computers to accurately dial-in opponents' blows. Presented as an alternative to problematic and (often) rigged human refs, a computerized system to take the guesswork out of scoring seemed like a new era in sports.

That's not exactly how it turned out.


The Olympic moment: Griffin's second opponent of the games was Spanish light-weight boxer, Rafael Lozano. Despite throwing meticulously aimed punches more frequently and faster than his opponent, Griffin still lost the match 6-5 in a massive upset.

To add insult to injury, Griffin's opponent Lozano had only been boxing for 27-months prior to the competition.

You can watch a portion of this match below:

Griffin lost to Lozano at the 1992 Olympics.

However, Griffin's performance wasn't to blame. Instead, further investigation into the call uncovered that the computerized systems — or rather, the slow human referees manning those systems — didn't log 31 of Griffin's hits during the match.

In order for the computerized scoring system to work as designed, human refs must input their call by the press of a button within one second to record a hit. Each boxer has a designated button and three out of five refs much hit it within one second for the point to count. But when it came to scoring Griffin, the refs were simply to slow.

Despite having raw data to show that the refs in many cases had attempted to score Griffin's blows, the judges would not overturn the computer's call.

"They stole the fight from me,” Griffin reflected.

The science: Despite the upset over Griffin's loss in 1992, these computerized systems were not retired from boxing matches until the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But the all-human team of refs who judged Rio also resulted in controversy; that drama quickly led to the disqualification and banning of several judges and referees for bias and subjective calls. At the time, International Boxing Association official Tom Virgets asked for clemency, arguing "[i]n 2012 our judges were robots" and they needed time to transition.

Still, the situation resulted in some puzzlement: Should robot refs head back to Olympic boxing?

On the one hand, they wouldn't be the only non-human judges there. Professional tennis matches have been relying on a trapeze artist robot, called Hawk-Eye, to judge points for years now. Zooming along wires above the court, this bot uses information about the ball's trajectory and speed to predict where it will land and quickly follows it to determine whether that blur of green was actually in the court or out.

But, despite looking indisputable to viewers at home, Hawk-Eye is built with an inherent margin of error of a few millimeters — certainly enough for players like Roger Federer to squabble with it about.

There's also been talk in recent years about bringing robot refs to Olympic gymnastics. More advanced than a simple camera zooming across the ceiling, a robot ref for gymnastics would need to include sophisticated computer vision that could visualize and judge the minute movements of a gymnasts' form.

Refining the abilities of these robot referees to ensure they're above the scrutiny of fans and players alike may besides the point, argues Harry Collins, a 72-year-old professor of social sciences at Cardiff University in Wales who co-authored the book Bad Call: Technology's Attack on Referees and Umpires and How to Fix It.

"Sports is a human activity,” says Collins. “Humans are imperfect; that’s OK. Everyone knows that sometimes referees are going to make a mistake. It’s worked that way for hundreds of years.”

To maintain both the artistry of sports as well as professionalism, experts are suggesting that we might instead see "co-bots" in the next Olympic Games — computer systems that are complementary to humans. It doesn't seem like human refs will be going very far.

And even if you don't see any robots on the field in 2021, you might see a few hanging out in the crowds.

Related Tags