Although it’s been one of London’s sporting rituals since 1877, the annual Wimbledon tennis championships aren’t all about strawberries, cream and tradition. In fact, in the last few years the All-England Lawn Tennis Club has introduced some bang-up-to-date AI technology to help compile its in-house coverage of the venerable competition.
Previously, staff had manually sifted through hundreds of hours of footage each year to decide which moments of each match to feature in replays and highlights. But since 2017, a robot named Watson (created by tech giant IBM) has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
‘With 18 courts, there can be 18 matches underway at any one point in time,’ says Sam Seddon, IBM’s client executive for Wimbledon. ‘And in today’s media world, you want to be able to tell the story of each match as quickly as possible.’
To do this, Watson scans video footage in real time for the tell-tale signs of high sporting drama. ‘We’ve got traditional data: what’s the score? Was it a break point?’ explains Seddon. ‘We’ve also got sound: were the crowd excited? And then we’ve got how animated the players are. Over time, artificial intelligence is able to learn not just that a piece of footage contains a human being, but that – in the context of Wimbledon – the human being is pumping his or her fist.’
Using all that information, Watson is able to pull together a highlights reel within minutes of a match finishing – around nine times faster than a human doing the same job. And of course, Watson is constantly learning what other factors make for a nailbiting game. As millions of fans watch breathtaking footage from Wimbledon this summer, how many will know that it’s been picked out and polished by a tennis-loving robot?
Interview by Alyx Gorman.