Test Match Special and Technological Agency

July 18, 2013

“The problem with the introduction of technology is the expectation of 100% accuracy” – Jonathan Agnew, Test Match Special


When Aleem Dar, one of two umpires at Trent Bridge last Sunday, raised his finger to dismiss Australia’s Brad Haddin and give the first Test to England, he was playing a crucial role not only in the 131 year history of the Ashes contest, but in a far older, and contemporarily relevant debate: that of human versus technological agency. It’s a strange thing when you realise that the most prominent discussion about the future of humanity in a technological age is happening during the lunch break on Radio Four Long Wave – but it is.

For those not familiar with international cricket’s Umpire Decision Review System (DRS), it is the process by which certain matters are decided on the field, not just by the umpires, but by a series of advanced technologies observing the game: watching, analysing, and even listening to it. Haddin was initially given not out when he appeared to be caught behind, presumably because the umpire didn’t believe he had hit the ball. But after England appealed the decision, the decision was referred to the third umpire, and DRS. A slow-motion infra-red camera known as Hot Spot, trained on the batsman from the far side of the field, showed a momentary but incontrovertibly bright dot of friction heat on Haddin’s bat as he just nicked the ball into the England wicket-keeper’s hands. Another system, not officially part of DRS but widely used by broadcasters, confirmed the decision. The Snickometer, a combination of slow-motion camera and high-quality microphone, detected an almost imperceptible but audible “snick” as the ball struck the bat’s edge. The game was England’s.


Hot Spot’s technology was adapted by an Australian broadcasting company for sporting use, but is based on pioneering military work by French scientist Nicholas Bion for tank and jet fighter tracking. The twin SLX-Hawk thermal imaging cameras at Trent Bridge were built by a British engineering company, Selex ES, which also designs laser rangefinders, radars and other sensors for planes, warships and satellites. The Snickometer was invented in the mid-90s by British Computer Scientist Alan Plaskett, who has also worked on Hot Spot. The final piece of DRS, and the best known one due to its use in Tennis and other sports, is Hawk-Eye, another product of British engineering – Roke Manor Research, based in Romsey, which also produces signal intercept systems and altimeters for drone aircraft.

Hawk-Eye uses a network of high-performance cameras to track a ball in motion, combining the footage from each one in order to create a three-dimensional representation of the ball’s trajectory. In tennis, this yields the footprints which decide whether a line call is given in or out in contested calls, and in cricket it is used to predict whether a ball deflecting by the batsman’s pad would have hit the wicket, or not. But of course, this is only a prediction, more accurate than a human eye and capable of greater accuracy than human judges, but not, in any strict sense, infallible. The complexity of the calculations used to determe Hawk-Eye’s accuracy rival those of the more famous, and equally misunderstood, Duckworth-Lewis method.

The significance of such technologies has not gone unnoticed, and as such is highly debated within the sport, and particularly in the commentary box. Listeners to Test Match Special have become accustomed to long and involved discussions about these technologies (and others – Friday lunchtime was given over to an explanation of the work of the English Cricket Board’s Performance Analysis Team, which tracks, stores and analyses every ball in every first-class game in order to provide as much preemptive training to its players as possible. This is truly ‘big data’ in action). Sometimes these debates concern the inner workings of the technology, and at other times they become more philosophical, focussed on the greater question of what is, and what is not, cricket.

And this is where sports technology begins to illuminate larger issues around human and technological agency. An unlikely champion of humanity has emerged in the person of Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA. Soccer players and fans have long called for the introduction of goal-line technology, which would be able to tell more accurately than referees if a ball had indeed crossed the line. A number of different approaches, one based on Hawk-Eye, another using chips implanted in footballs, are currently under trial. However, Blatter has long opposed these, based partly on their accuracy, but also going on the record to say that “Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. … We don’t do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football”. What underlies this statement is a fundamental belief that sport is a human undertaking, with all the confusion, fallibility and debate that that involves. One reading is that officials are themselves part of the game, a fact of endless frustration to almost everyone involved; another that sport is inherently chance-based, and while we resist optimising participants through drugs and physical augmentations, the laws and outcomes of sport should remain human too.

Like sport itself, these debates are endless. No technology will ever be infallible, but it may certainly be more accurate than human referees, umpires, commentators and armchair critics. What’s really interesting about having this debate at the TMS level is that it’s fundamentally and visibly embedded in a larger system: that of the game and history of cricket, a rule-based structure which leaves plenty of wiggle room for human fallibility, and human passions. This means the debate is not about the technology itself, but about its wider implications for the system it’s embedded in. The graphics are pretty but we care about the outcome a lot more.

But when such debates happen in wider society – another rule-based structure with a degree of wiggle room – this isn’t always the case. The same arguments around human and technological agency are occurring all around us, but we don’t seem to be debating them in the same way. Whether this is automation and optimisation in factories and supply chains and the rise of cloud labour; the use of high-frequency, algorithmic trading programmes in stock exchanges; drone strikes and other forms of roboticised, augmented warfare; or the ubiquitous, computational surveillance of the kind performed by Google, GCHQ and the NSA; all of these debates revolve around issues of human agency and the limits of automated systems. Each of these systems is built by humans, but their motives and politics are obscured by the illegibility and authority of the technology itself; in each of the surrounding debates both the technologies and their consequences are harder to see, meaning it’s harder to have an informed debate about them. As a result, truly democratic participation in the real business of the world is ever more reduced.

What is important is that a debate happens around these technologies in terms that everyone can understand, uncomplicated by technical jargon and technological determinism. Sport, rich in emotion and visualisation, is a perfect testing ground for such arguments. That they are being advanced most prominently between overs on Test Match Special is both delightful and worthy of wider attention.

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