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FIFA to install AI to help make accurate offside decisions

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

FIFA, soccer's governing body, is hoping they can improve one of the game's most disputed rules with the help of artificial intelligence. The organization says it will roll out the use of AI at the upcoming World Cup to help call when a player is offside. When the AI decides a player is offside, it will then alert the team of video referees, which, according to FIFA, will help make accurate decisions happen more quickly. For more on this, let's bring in ESPN FC editor Dale Johnson. He joins us from London. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DALE JOHNSON: Hi there. How are you doing?

SUMMERS: I am well, Dale. Explain to listeners - why are offside calls in soccer so often disputed, and how could this technology possibly help?

JOHNSON: Yeah. So offside is a really crucial part of the game, and it's involved in every single goal and every single penalty or attacking move. Basically, the player that scores, or the player who touches the ball, must have three defensive players in front of him when the ball's played. So it's really important that this is got right because obviously if you get an offside decision wrong, then that puts that player in an advantage that they shouldn't have and can lead and has led to incorrect goals before VAR came in. So this technology will be much better. It will be faster. It would more accurate. And FIFA hopes it's going to fix a lot of the problems that we're seeing.

SUMMERS: OK. So let's stay with that for a second. So if I am a fan and I'm watching at home or I'm sitting in a stadium, what difference will I see?

JOHNSON: So the key change that this is going to bring is it's going to be much faster. A straightforward but close offside decision, at the moment, FIFA says that these take, globally, around 70 seconds. According to FIFA, this will now be 25 seconds. So you're basically cutting it by almost two-thirds, which will be a - make a big difference, especially when goals are scored because for the most part, these decisions will be made while the players will be celebrating. So the people on the ground and the people at home will probably not notice a lot more VAR reviews compared to what they notice today.

SUMMERS: So people who follow the game know how controversial the offside rule can be at times. And in the past, officials have tried all sorts of solutions, like video assisted referees known as VAR. How much of a difference could AI make compared to previous enervations?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean, before 2017, 2018, football was just totally against any kind of technology coming into the game. In fact, the goal line technology, which came in about four or five years before that, people were massively against that as well. And that uses AI to produce a 3D animation of whether the ball is over the line or not. Now, FIFA say that because people are so accepting of that AI 3D animation for the goal line technology, that means that they will be able to fix the offside. So get rid of those doubts, gets rid of those points where the fan looking at home or looking at the stadium looks at these pictures and thinks there's no way that player is offside, that can't be offside and get it to the situation where people do look at these 3D animations and say to themselves, fair enough. I accept that decision.

SUMMERS: FIFA is introducing this, essentially, on soccer's biggest stage at November's World Cup. Do you have any understanding of why this timing? Has this been something that FIFA has been working on implementing for a while now?

JOHNSON: This is all part of FIFA's grand plan in terms of improving offside and the visualization. They're both together but separate, but obviously they work together. Now, this FIFA, after the World Cup, will give this to the world, give this to the leagues. So this won't be something that is just for the World Cup. We will see offside improve much more in the other leagues next year in 2023. So this is FIFA's big idea. It's to improve the game and drive it forward by introducing this AI technology.

SUMMERS: That's Dale Johnson, editor for ESPN FC. Thank you so much for being here.

JOHNSON: Great. It's no problem. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Kathryn Fox