Robots were used to judge this year’s World Artistic Gymnastics Championships – Screen Shot
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Robots were used to judge this year’s World Artistic Gymnastics Championships

This year, the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships were held in Stuttgart, Germany, from 4 October to 13 October. Almost unnoticeable, were robots spread among the crowd of visitors. Don’t let your imagination run wild, the bleachers weren’t scattered with Terminator lookalikes. Instead, 30 rectangular grey boxes were assembled around the gymnasium’s floor, small and discreet enough to ignore. But to many, these boxes hold more significance—this could be “the beginning of the new history of gymnastics,” declared the President of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), Morinari Watanabe. But what does the new history of gymnastics entail? A much-needed change in another industry affected by corruption.

The use of sophisticated new technology in major competitions and sporting events is something that has become quite common, especially in football and tennis. Video assistant referee (VAR) technology was, at first, subject to many critics, but it ended up sticking around, because it is undeniably fairer and more objective. Even when it comes to gymnastics, video technology was already being used to judge and analyse. But, until now, full video review was only used after a competition to judge the judges’ performance, not the athletes’, as judges could favour athletes from their own federations or dislike a specific athlete. In the last few years, judges’ malpractice has plagued gymnastics competitions (the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens being the biggest example). That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.

This newly-introduced technology, invented and designed by the Japanese company Fujitsu, can measure height, body angles, and the number of degrees by which a gymnast splits her legs, in three dimensions, and from any direction. The small boxes go as far as measuring whether a rotation is complete and count whether a certain position is held for three seconds or not.

Image-shared-by-Fujitsu with the New York Times

In Stuttgart, the set of three-dimensional laser sensors tracked the movements of each of the 547  participating gymnasts from 92 different nations. Before the event, gymnasts had their bodies digitally scanned by Fujitsu for the new technology to be able to analyse every little bit of data the athletes generate while competing. That data was then fed to an AI system accessible to the human judges. The system analysed skeletal positions and speeds as the athletes went through their movements. Because the Fujitsu technology has been successfully used at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, it is now said to be potentially implemented at the 2020 Olympic Games.

Although it is only here as a support for human judges for now, this technology could soon replace judges altogether. This means the nature of judged sports, such as gymnastics, diving, synchronised swimming, figure skating, snowboard, ski jumping and freestyle skiing, would change. But with any type of change come worries, and people seem to always react strongly when AI gets involved—be that in art, religion, or even in fashion. For gymnastics, sceptics already fear that the technology could help people manipulate results in an even more transparent way than before, while others believe in the possibility that it would erase any type of corruption.

The real question is will there be a time when human judges are eliminated completely? It stays unclear, but at the moment, AI is not yet sophisticated enough to completely replace human judges. Amplifying human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilisations flourish, as well as reducing human error. Still, intelligence also enables control, and there is always the possibility that, one day,  AI could turn competent and develop goals misaligned with ours. Managing and keeping technology beneficial only depends on us. Then again, this argument could be put aside when used in sports or artistic industries, for artistry and mastery can’t only be examined through skills, but also based on the emotion they evoke in humans—something that robots have not attained just yet.

Autonomous killer bots are underway, can we stop them?

The scene is of a fighter plane, an army submarine or tank operating as usual. The only difference is that aboard them are no human beings at all. This image isn’t from a sci-fi movie or even a far away future, instead Autonomous Weapons Systems or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) were the focal point of countless discussions at the UN last week when member countries met in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The convention’s aim is to bring together all members of the United Nations in a constructive and hopefully productive agreement to ban the use of automated weapons controlled by AI on an international scale. Now the case to ban autonomous weapons of all shapes and functionalities was first brought to the CCW back in 2013, when a coalition of nine NGOs under the name of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots began raising this growing concern and campaigning for the absolute and immediate outlawing of such military developments.

In last week’s convention and five years after the relentless campaigning against these lethal and highly controversial weapons began, 121 countries have agreed “that new regulations are needed to ensure meaningful human control of all weapons systems” as reported by Forbes. However successful this development is—which it is—concrete steps towards an international agreement to halt any developments in this field are yet to take place.

The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and Australia have previously opposed the negotiation and blocked a 2019 mandate on the matter as they then argued that it was too early on in the development of this new weapon branch, while also claiming that there are military advantages to such innovation. However in last week’s convention, all countries except for Russia agreed to continue the deliberations on the future of autonomous weapons in next year’s convention—unfortunately, as the CCW is based on a consensual structure of all members, Russia’s opposition had the voting power to block negotiations advancing further.

What such an opposition has caused is a detrimental slowing down of negotiation processes, which are already at a snail pace compared to that of hi-tech state military development and simply allows more time in a lawless grey zone for these nations to keep on developing their technology.

In response to the countries in opposition to continuing negotiation around the banning of such weapons, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that “The impacts of new technologies on warfare are a direct threat to our common responsibility to guarantee peace and security. The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern.”

It is yet unclear where the coming years will lead us in the development of autonomous weapons. What is transparent however is that powerful nations are striving to lead the race, with Putin stating that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world” already in 2017. All we can do is continue to campaign against this move while supporting the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and their cause to stop the development of automated military weapons.