Strike Three, Your Out: “Robots” to Replace Umpires

Who’s Next?

Technology has a way of inevitably working itself into the nooks and crannies of our life regardless of if we want it there or not. Or if it is ultimately a good idea or not. In February Major League Baseball announced an agreement where the Atlantic League would, among other things, be a test platform for the use of robot umpires. This should not surprise me, but somehow it did. Call me old fashioned but there is something special, something uniquely American and apple pie, about baseball. But even baseball is not immune to our insatiable appetite for technology. As a matter of fact, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015 the first “computerized strike zone,” using a contraption called the Pitch F/X, was employed for the very first time in a professional baseball game over four years ago. . In other words the move to replace the human umpire from behind the plate has been in active development since before 2015. I would classify the Pitch F/X as a mature technology by now which has passed the proof of concept phase, and is being readied for deployment. An outstanding commentary about this issue was written last year (2018) and can be found at I share the sentiments of the author. Doesn’t stop there.

Think driver-less cars is not a thing? Or that it will not effect you any time soon? Well as of this date four people have been killed by driver-less cars (see this list which is acitvely updated and likely to have increased since this was written), and the United States Department of Transportation even has a plan to implement them:

The continuing evolution of automotive technology aims to deliver even greater safety benefits and Automated Driving Systems (ADS) that one day  can handle the whole task of driving when we don’t want to or can’t do it ourselves. Fully automated cars and trucks that drive us, instead of us driving them, will become a reality. These self-driving vehicles ultimately will integrate onto U.S. roadways by progressing through six levels of driver assistance technology advancements in the coming years.

In principle I think the safety benefits would, eventually, be great with autonomous vehicles. Also, since muscle cars have gone the way of all flesh, for me driving an automobile is more a chore than something fun to do. I bike commute by the way, and will be writing more more about that. However, I would prefer other means of mass transportation instead of individual autonomous automobiles which we probably will not own but lease or subscribe to making us perpetual customers on the never ending subscription model being aggressively pushed by many companies such as Microsoft and Adobe.  Then there is the issue of loosing even more jobs in an economy that is rapidly shedding them. According to the American Trucking Association there are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States, and that does not even count people who drive for UPS, FedX, the USPS, cab drivers, pizza delivery, etc. I would imagine the number of people who drive as a major part of their job to be well over 7 million. But it is the principle that is at work that is troubling.

Supporters of the robo umpire complain about the missed calls that umpires make. Fair enough. But what about all the mistakes the players, and the manager make? We already have pitching machines that are capable of pitching fastballs consistently faster than any human and do so without tiring, injury, or asking for more money. Just an occasional software update is all they will need. Artificial intelligence will soon be capable of taking the place of managers using highly refined and evolving algorithms. If we can make robotic pitchers why not other players? Then we wouldn’t have to suffer through injuries, player strikes, stupid player errors, and all the other things which, well, … make baseball what it is. Baseball. That may happen now that I think about it. Where does this stop? Maybe we will devolve to the point were we are nothing but spectators and consumers. Maybe machines will start running things, and do so with flawless sterile efficiency.

What is the point of this essay? Maybe there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to technology. Especially in how it is deployed Or at least some iterations of it. Maybe we need to retool the term efficiency which could include a place for people. We also need to remember that technology is amoral. Yet, we allow it, and greed, to define what is allowed as we bow down to the god of profit, and the goddess of efficiency.

Employers seem to dream of a business that runs itself autonomously with robotics, and artificial intelligence. No messy personnel issues. No maternity leave, or benefits to worry about. Just capital investment. So, that is the bottom line. People are an unwelcome cost, and not a capital investment. The less you have to have of them the better of you will be. Of course this begs the question of where we will get consumers if a massive amount of the population is either not working or working at low wages or the gig economy (sort of the same thing).

Proponents of driver less cars, and robotic umpires all have the same argument.  Humans make too many errors. Yes we do.  And there is something profoundly inhuman, and inhumane, in thinking we can create a world were machines will do for us what we are so woefully inadequate at. We are beginning to see a severe form of mission creep in our use of technology. Umpires today. You tomorrow?

By the way don’t give me the line that technology creates more and better jobs.  That is proving not to be true.  Technology always replaces more jobs than it creates.  More on that in a future post.