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Cue the Robots

The influence of artificial intelligence is gradually seeping into many aspects of our lives. But how could it affect snooker in decades to come?

The year is 2077, and the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield is celebrating staging the World Championship for the 100th consecutive year.

AI-147 carefully considers the table. He chalks his titanium cue with mineral dust gathered earlier in the day from Comet 67P. Finally, he aims at the white ball, pauses for a moment and then executes a powerful shot which sends all 15 reds into the pockets. The Referobot chimes ‘15’. Unsmiling, AI-147 moves smoothly around the table and pots the black and then the colours in sequence. The virtual crowd erupts in a crescendo of applause. It’s his 237th total clearance in a row.

Is this snooker’s Brave New World or a vision of the future which would leave Aldous Huxley top-spinning in his grave?

In fact the idea of robot snooker players is nothing new.  Back in 1981, BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme introduced a machine called Hissing Sid which could dispatch balls into pockets using a miniature cue. In 2012, a company called Geku Automation produced an advanced robot which could convert pots as well as weaving the cue at speed between balls.

Artificial intelligence has been one of the fastest moving areas of technology in recent years. Voice-responsive devices like Siri and Alexa can do everything from giving directions to playing your favourite music, while Amazon’s algorithms can predict what you want to buy before you know it yourself. Robot doctors, self-driving cars, quantum computers and phones which unlock when they recognise your face will all be among us soon.

We don’t yet have robots which think for themselves. So far, computers can only respond to what they have been programmed to do by humans. As Garry Kasparov said when he lost to the chess computer Deep Blue 20 years ago: “Machine’s triumph is man’s triumph.”

But is it fantasy to imagine that artificially intelligent robots will one day compete in snooker, or other sports?

The entertainment industry is driven by consumer demand, so the real question is whether fans of the future will want to watch sporting robots. And if the greatest fascination of sport is its human element, then the answer is no.

Ronnie O’Sullivan famously used a robotic voice in an interview earlier this year – but in fact it’s his human side which fans love

Sport is captivating because of the mistakes, as much as for the skill and athleticism of its star performers. Remember Jean Van De Velde wading in the water as he blew a three shot lead on the final hole of the Open, or Jana Novotna crying on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent after choking her chance to win Wimbledon? And Dennis Taylor’s final black in 1985 must be considered in the context of the usually unflappable Steve Davis buckling under pressure and missing to the same pocket.

If robots are made so perfectly that they don’t make mistakes, then where’s the vulnerability, the possibility of the failure?

Much more likely is that artificial intelligence will increasingly be used in sport as a training aid to athletes to help hone their skills. Using huge amounts of data created during practice sessions and studying the behaviour of the athlete, machines can learn where the strengths and weaknesses of an individual lie, and give advice on how to improve.

World Snooker signed a ten-year deal with Rigour Media earlier this year

World Snooker recently signed a new ten year deal with Rigour Media to develop our sport’s digital presence in China. Rigour has already been involved on the tour for several years; they provide the on-screen technology which tracks the position of the balls on the table. And at the world-renowned official academy in Beijing run by the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association and the WPBSA, Rigour is the training and technology partner.

There are many millions of talented young snooker players in China, and the best of them come to the academy to develop their skills with the goal to join the tour and follow in the footsteps of Ding Junhui and their other heroes.

Rigour use a training evaluation system to track their progress. During exams, every shot is judged by the computer according to factors including power applied to the cue ball, the final resting position of the balls and pot success rate. Over time, players learn the strengths and weaknesses of their technique. This evaluation system has been continuously and steadily examining players for several years.

Rigour’s Super Star platform allows fans to interact closely with their favourite players

Rigour’s Chief Technology Officer Mr Xing Zhongxian said: “With the optimisation of algorithms, we can have higher efficiency, more powerful data analysis and processing capabilities, and more information. Our system can provide the athlete with the best solutions on shot selection, with automatic and comprehensive analysis of the table situation to compare the outcome of a variety of shots. It will tell the athlete how many options there are, the impact of each option, the success rate of each shot, and which is most likely to help them win the frame.

“We have made plans for data accumulation, data mining and data management. We can use an athlete’s competition results and training data to refine his technical characteristics and identify his flaws in order to tap into his potential.”

Rigour is also developing a Billiards Navigator system for snooker clubs, which will allow amateur players to create their own training plan, record their results, get advice on improving and play against other competitors online.

Looking to the future, Xing believes that inevitable developments in artificial intelligence will allow Rigour to improve their own technology both in training players and delivering services to fans. They already have a platform called Superstars Online where fans in China can watch tournaments on a live stream and interact with players.

“We hope in the near future, there will be artificially intelligent coaches and competitions to bring human beings a more colourful world,” said Xing. “Augmented reality training aids (where the player can practise on a ‘virtual’ table) can help players see how to improve their skills, which is much more efficient than just talking to a coach. They would not be limited by space and time, they could practise anywhere just using a headset.”

Millions of school children in China learn snooker technique at an early age

In the long term, Rigour will take advantage of developing technology to improve the operation of their ball-tracking and online streaming systems.

Xing added: “The performance of hardware is getting more and more powerful, and more portable. For example, in the future industrial cameras may be several times smaller in size, but the performance will be stronger. The integration will be simpler – data transmission may no longer rely on cables, and become completely wireless.

“As for entertainment, virtual reality could allow fans to interact with their favourite snooker player, and enjoy an immersive experience where they can watch at home and feel as if they are in the venue, or experience the match from the perspective of a player.”

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer who penned visionary stories in the 1950s including I, Robot once said: “I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them.” Whatever you think of artificial intelligence, it’s rapid evolution is unstoppable. Every industry must be ready to take advantage, including sport. ​