It’s an unlikely pairing, as one of the most artistic sports might soon be judged by computers.

Gymnastics has come a long way since Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in 1976. It’s become faster, more technical, and more competitive. In response, the pointing and judging system has changed too. Judges have had to improve, as the differences between athletes have become smaller and subtler. It can sometimes be difficult to analyze a performance, especially after hours and hours of work.

“A judge must work for eight hours per day – does that allow the mental capacity to remain coherent? It’s not possible to maintain a coherent mind of criteria. Only the computer does,” said former International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) president Bruno Grande.

Australian artistic gymnast, Lauren Mitchell. Image credits: Steven Rasmussen.

With that in mind, FIG is considering using artificial intelligence (AI) to complement (or even replace) judges. They say that this approach could ease the workload from judges and assist athletes and coaches in training. Furthermore, this might make gymnastics a bit fairer, as AI could ensure that all performances are judged similarly and equitably. To make things even better, the gymnastics federation doesn’t need to invest a cent in the technology — both the sensors and the algorithms already exist on the market. But not everyone is convinced, and the sportsmen themselves have spoken against such an approach.

“Gymnasts are known for pushing the skills, looking for new angles, turns, points – so what happens when someone comes along with a totally different routine that has not been seen or registered by the computer,” Nadia Comaneci told the Guardian at the recent world championships. “How would that be judged?”

Indeed, while judges may suffer from fatigue and slight biases, their experience and passion for the sport is something that can hardly be replaced by an artificial eye, as tireless and flawless as it may be. Furthermore, skilled hackers or technical glitches could jeopardize entire competitions — and entire careers. That’s a risk which should not be treated lightly and not underestimated.

Either way, tests are set to start soon, with the first AI being prepared for the Tokyo Olympics, though it remains to be seen whether AI will actually decide something or if it will only be a test. Even if it’s the latter, the fact that we are even considering this shows just how much technology has advanced. Gymnastics may be at the forefront, but other sports like figure skating and diving are right behind. Technology is changing sports, and it’s here to stay.

“I don’t think it will be possible to ever replace judges. Gymnastics is too complex, there are so many skills and nuances in every routine. But I like the idea of the technology,” Comaneci said. “It’s OK to try, why not? This is what is happening in all sports now, technology is changing our experience with it.”

This article was brought to you by Intel. 

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