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John MacDonald: How about robots instead of TMOs?

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Mon, 30 Oct 2023, 1:30PM
(Photo / Getty Images)
(Photo / Getty Images)

John MacDonald: How about robots instead of TMOs?

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Mon, 30 Oct 2023, 1:30PM

If you hadn’t heard of Tom Foley before yesterday, you’ve probably heard of him now. 

He was the Television Match Official - or TMO - in yesterday’s Rugby World Cup final. If you were watching the match on TV, he was the guy in the jacket and tie who kept popping up in the corner of the screen. 

In fact, did he “pop up”? Or was he on screen the whole time? It felt like he was there the whole time. 

And it’s him and the other faceless match officials who have been in the firing line. Especially over that farcical situation where we had two players committing pretty much the same offence, but only one of them getting a red card. 

It was the faceless match officials who made the call there. They’re the ones who go through the video when a player is sent off with a yellow card and it’s them who decide whether it’s upgraded to a red card.  

So what’s the solution? Well, I reckon robots are the solution. Not completely. But I reckon robots or artificial intelligence would be much better for making the calls on things like whether a yellow card is upgraded to a red card.  

If they reckon lawyers could be replaced one day by Artificial Intelligence, why not match officials as well?   

I remember reading about a TV documentary that featured an experiment with artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which found that a robot going through a complex legal document was able to do it faster and more accurately than humans. 

There was a huge outcry at the time, apparently, from people in the legal profession who reckoned you could never replace a human when it comes to doing legal stuff. 

And some of the concerns they raised were about things like privacy. Because, if you’ve got a robot dealing with confidential stuff, what happens if it goes AWOL and starts sending sensitive material to every Tom, Dick and Harry? 

We’ve actually seen, haven’t we, with one of the latest versions of Artificial Intelligence - Chat GPT - cases where the machine has gone rogue and has been doing things like getting into arguments with people, apparently. 

So you can see why people might be a bit antsy about letting the robot deal with their private, sensitive information. I can’t imagine wanting a robot to defend me if I ended up in court either.  

But sport is different. Yes, it can be high stakes. But nothing like the law. 

But, just like the law, inconsistent decision-making in sport is an issue. We get inconsistent legal decisions. We get inconsistent refereeing decisions too. And that’s one of the big talking points to come out of yesterday’s rugby world cup final.  

Which is why I think the robots should be brought in. We’ve got four years until the next World Cup. Surely, by then the technology could be in place where the faceless, off-site match officials could be replaced by a machine. 

Someone asked me how the robots would announce their decisions. Easy. It would come through on the big screen at the venues. 

Take the human decision-making out of it and you would get a lot more consistency. 

You’d still want to have an on-field referee. But there'd be less of the nonsense we saw yesterday and there'd be more consistent decisions at times when it really matters. 

Like, as we saw yesterday, times when a single decision can determine whether both teams see out the game with the same number of players on the field - or not. 


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