Can AI save amateur soccer from referee shortage?

Harnessing smart phones and AI, some calls could be automated.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Closeup of a Soccer Player Legs in Action

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My wife plays in a women's soccer league and the games tend to get pretty competitive. Good thing, then, that the league provides two referees for each game (and, um, maybe bad thing for my wife that those refs come packing yellow cards).

But not every would be Mia Hamm is so lucky. Amateur soccer, and particularly youth soccer, is undergoing a major referee shortage owing in part to the pandemic and in part to the awful treatment refs tend to endure from cranky and over-agitated parents. The position tends to be low pay, and lots of former refs have simply had enough. Without some kind of ref presence, competitive soccer, which requires judgment calls best left to a neutral arbiter, is all but impossible. 

Can AI provide a kind last-ditch stopgap?

A software startup called CoCoPIE, which brings AI capability to off-the-shelf mobile devices, believes it has the technology for just such an application. CoCoPIE recently announced a partnership with Cognizant to develop a set of super-resolution solutions to enhance end-users multimedia viewing experience, creating high-resolution images and videos. As part of the new partnership, Cognizant and CoCoPIE will work in tandem to achieve real-time processing by creating advanced deep neural network-based (DNN) solutions, which gives the technology, which can be used on consumer devices, interesting real-world reach.

One possible application of CoCoPIE's AI is to alleviate the current amateur soccer referee shortage. While the application may not be the best bet for determining if a slide tackle is fair play, it could be a great way to call out of bounds or offsides via mobile phone. That could help provide a crucial extra set of eyes, allowing a single human ref to focus on harder-to-automate fouls. With the edge-AI-referee, games for which there are few human refs could conceivably continue even when there is limited connectivity to the cloud and rules can be enforced simultaneously at multiple games.

"This partnership with CoCoPIE will allow us to further enhance our customer's mobile and edge device experience," says James Rowley, Associate Director of Communications, Media and Technology at Cognizant Worldwide. "We look forward to leveraging CoCoPIE's advanced AI software technology to provide real-time video stream processing while still maintaining high accuracy, ultimately providing our customers with notable performance gains and higher resolution images and videos."

The key here is that CoCoPIE's tech gives smartphones the real-time and live AI capabilities previously possible only on servers or dedicated AI accelerators.

"Through CoCoPIE's proprietary technology on compression-compilation codesign, AI model optimization and automatic compiler-level code generation are optimized hand-in-hand," according to the company.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in soccer at all levels. Goal-line and semi-autonomous offsides technology are being embraced by FIFA, for example. It may not be long before a version of the same capability is harnessed for amateur play using smart phones.

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