VAR: The end of human referees?

Last week I attended the Annual Growing Gloucestershire Conference, with the theme of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Topics discussed included futurism, robots, artificial intelligence and the changes that would be brought about by the proliferation of the last two. This got me thinking about where artificial intelligence (AI) can make a big difference.

The theory is that AI improves efficiency, reduces the time it takes to complete tasks and improves accuracy. Given that the World Cup is currently underway in Russia and with the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR), is this a sign that technology, robots and AI could soon mean the end of the traditional whistle-blowing referee?

VAR was meant to speed up decisions, reduce controversy and ensure that fouls and other misdemeanours aren’t missed in the beautiful game. But while in some matches it did its job well, we have also seen disruption, delays and reversed decisions causing yet more confusion and discussion as to the right way of managing a football match.

Maybe it’s just because the technology is new and needs a settling in period. Or maybe this is an example of where the new technology needs to be embraced wholeheartedly; how long will it be until human referees are obsolete? With multi-angle cameras and the ability of AI to process different angles in near-real time, the correct programming could lead to accurate robotic decisions that can’t be argued with.

Football wouldn’t be the first industry to program expertise into AI; in healthcare, a skilled GP may have 20 years of experience treating patients. Imagine 20 doctors contributing to the programming of a single robotic GP. That robot now has 400 years of combined experience, allowing a single ‘doctor’ to offer a first, second and third opinion on any given case.

Such systems are being trialled already and are proving very popular with patients. It doesn’t stop with the GP either. Robots can now carry out dentistry to the same level of competence as a human – it won’t take long for that competence to outstrip our own abilities.

There are concerns that AI will threaten jobs in many professions, but while the doom-mongers suggest lawyers, doctors and teachers may all find themselves out of a job, other voices suggest that these roles will simply change and evolve to work alongside AI. But what about PR?

With advances in AI, data interpretation and the increasing capacity for virtual assistants to engage in real time (click here to see Google’s Duplex in action), there are voices suggesting the time of PRs writing press releases and features will soon be over. Those voices point to the incredible number of financial reports written by AI programs; in 2015 alone more than 3,000 financial reports were written by AI every quarter. The same algorithms can be applied to sports reporting – feed in the stats, and the AI can write the story.

So does AI mark the beginning of the end for PR?

In a word: no.

For a number of reasons, not least of which is that PR is not just about writing press releases, it’s about strategy, listening, understanding and communicating and so much more than just ‘facts’. Also, there’s something that can’t be authentically replicated by AI; emotion and empathy.

Good writing connects with a reader. It makes them care about the topic and generates an emotional response. Nothing can beat the ability of a human writer to instigate that reaction. Human writers can resonate with a story, connect with it themselves, and relate their own experiences to it. By truly feeling a story, the writer can convey the emotion, the feeling, the raw instincts that an emotive story engenders. AI cannot.


Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

(This blog first appeared on

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Having spent more than a decade in PR and communications management, Toby is an experienced and highly proactive PR professional and has extensive experience managing press office activity for both B2B and B2C clients. Toby is a skilled technical copywriter with outstanding attention to detail and when he’s not supporting his clients, he is generally playing hockey, climbing, chasing after his kids or driving posh cars for his motoring column.

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