Aidan Smith: Commentators are under threat from AI but I don’t want to hear a robot go ‘Woof!’

It’s the quiet ones you gotta watch. The American comedian George Carlin said this, meaning serial killers, but if he was still around he could just as easily be referring to Wimbledon right now.

Among all the major sporting events you’d surely place the impeccably-mannered, tradition-enslaved tennis fortnight at the All England Club as the quietest of them all. Holding onto The Way Things Are Done And Always Will Be, as if the code was a string of pearls or an ornate handrail.

But you’d be wrong. The tournament has itself reached out and grabbed the most fiendish and fear-riddled of modern concepts. From next Monday commentary will be provided by artificial intelligence.

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Only on the video packages available through the Wimbledon app and website, granted, but this was a job which used to be done by humans, now redundant. And the switch has been trailed as the “first step” towards computer-generated description of live matches.

Russia's Karen Khachanov is reflected in a commentary box at Wimbledon. (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)Russia's Karen Khachanov is reflected in a commentary box at Wimbledon. (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia's Karen Khachanov is reflected in a commentary box at Wimbledon. (Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Certainly it’s the thin end of the slippery slope. That’s not George Carlin again but one of my old editors who liked to mangle his metaphors. Other sports could copy, including - gadzooks - football.

Now, scare stories about AI abound. There are nightmare cybernetic visions of the near-future in which robots take over everything. You and me - especially you - will become eunuchs, impotent in the face of their diabolical, digital, do-everythingness.

Yes, yes, very clever. And I’m sure in many cases, very useful. AI will be able to replace menial tasks but that’s not sports commentary. The most memorable in football garland great or crucial goals. Remembering them, we always recite the words used in description, either silently to ourselves or loudly for the room.

Notice how I said “most memorable” and not “greatest”. Maybe greatest as far as AI is concerned would be the most detailed and most precise, with no mixed-up words amid the excitement. At Wimbledon, the machine voices will “incorporate data about where on the court the ball and the players are - and what kind of shots they are playing”.

Is this really what we want, in tennis, in football, in any sport? Me, I don’t need the bleedin' obvious stated. Or too many facts, factoids and stats. Football on TV is engulfed by them. This happens right away in a live game, straight from kickoff, when the superfluous stuff the commentator has been memorising comes splurging out. I can almost smell the midnight oil that’s been burned on it all. Then I think I can smell my telly threatening to blow a fuse. Okay, so sets don’t have them anymore and anyway are no longer called sets - stop being so smart. But the match hasn’t even got going and this guy has suffered premature explanation.

From commentators I don’t want perfection, rather imperfection. Funny fluffs that tell me they’re men (or women) and not man-made. Presumably AI can be pre-programmed to avoid mistakes, miss-calls and malapropisms. But it’s these which make commentators human, should we still be interested in such ancient concepts.

It’s the little yelps, warbles, croaks, screeches and breaks in the voice which endear us to them. Yes, it’s those moments - unscripted, unpredicted and surely impossible for a robot to assimilate - when only one word will do and that word is …“Woof!”

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What does it even mean? Nothing and yet everything. AI must struggle with that logic. Where did “stramash” come from? Possibly the old French word “escarmoche”, meaning skirmish, but no one really knows.

That kind of uncertainty and confusion would irritate AI. Good! Deal with it! And maybe a robot at the microphone, unable to control events, would suffer a critical malfunction like the Spitting Image puppet of David Coleman trying to ensure his words keep up with a 100m sprint when the head exploded and came right off. Speaking of which, AI would mean no more Colemanballs, another reason we love real commentators.

After the race has been run or the final whistle has sounded, I always want to see the commentator. His modest smile at a job well done. His flyaway hair. His three-quarter-length sheepskin jacket, though these are dying out now. Snow falling on him. Seagulls dive-bombing him. Cheeky boys cavorting behind him. Techno drowning him out. AI could not provide any of this vulnerability, although I suppose a robot could be equipped with the means to liquidise the gulls, the boys and the stadium DJ.

Wimbledon's embracing of AI will go further. Before too long the line judges are expected to be replaced. But hang on: they’re as SW19 as the strawberries! Especially those best summed up by a line of John Betjeman: “Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl.”

Back to commentary, the technology for Wimbledon has been developed by IBM. The company’s sports partnership leader, Kevin Farrar, says: “I see AI as very much complimenting the human element, rather than replacing.” (Unlike, oh I don’t know, the role of sports partnership leader which probably could be done by a robot standing on its head).

But AI has other mystical powers. It can bring famous voices back from the dead. If approved by his family, Dan Maskell could be commentating again. That would be weird. And Harry Carpenter, too, although he’s best remembered at Wimbledon for his non-commentary. When rain halted play, Harry had to “fill”. He was teased mercilessly for that by Clive James but I’d like to see a machine keep it up for an entire afternoon with nothing to describe but the plip-plopping on the tarpaulin.

Or when there’s nothing to describe but the squeegee-ing of Hampden. “The most sweepers I’ve ever seen on a football pitch,” said Craig Levein on Sportsound last Tuesday. Well, apart from the night of 4-6-0 …



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