Can HBO's PunchForce Technology Fix Judging Or Make Things Even Worse?

Blade Runner isn't the only place where technology and humanity collide.

We've had little choice embracing the technology revolution. Most of us accept it, and never think to ask questions about whether certain technologies are worth having. Like much of science, it's always assumed that morality and the pursuit of knowledge are separate, as if knowledge itself lives in a vacuum. This can either look like an obnoxious prelude from someone reading Isaac Asimov for the first time (guilty as charged), or a reference to serious questions about the future as we implement robot technology into transportation, and national security.

The reason I bring up these metaphysical curiosities is that the sports world, a world typically characterized by its corruption, and insulation from the cultured mind, is oddly enough, the one place that has been willing to have this discussion. I'm not saying we've had this discussion intelligently. Traditionalists present an odd logic to the prospect of instant replay, and fight metric-like number crunching: "Ted Williams wouldn't have needed a goddamn computer protecting him from stupid umpires!"

But perhaps there's more nuance to the discussion than simply "fight metric in place of Cecil Peoples is the answer!" (not that that isn't a fantastic idea). So let's talk about what this has to do with MMA.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday about HBO's new sensor unit they've been working on for five years:

This technology, called PunchForce, is designed to measure the speed and force of a boxer's punches and transmit that information instantaneously to viewers of HBO broadcasts. But its real potential is far broader: If it works, it could help this struggling sport fix one of its most nagging flaws.

...HBO has no doubt about its value to viewers, said its inventor, Jamyn Edis, a research-and-development executive at HBO before leaving this spring. "You just have to look at the blogs (to see that) there is a lot of argument about judging bias and refereeing bias," said Edis, now a new-media professor at New York University. But "numbers don't lie, and people having access to that data in real time, that can shine a light on the sport."

The technology itself isn't necessarily alone. Australian researchers developed a ‘smart vest' last year intended to tally punches more accurately for amateur boxing.

In football, impact sensors are being tested in mouthpieces, and helmets to measure the force of head on collisions (although pure force won't tell us much since so much of what we're learning about concussions indicates that it's the accumulation of blows, big and small, that lead to brain damage and not simply ‘x amount of concussions'). Moore's Law in the ring, and beyond.

So the question for combat sports fans is: can this technology improve judging?

Boxing continues to be infamous for its lameduck judging, with the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley fight leaving an especially bad taste in everyone's mouth. MMA isn't all that different.

Whether or not PunchForce is the answer depends. Bad judging, like ice cream, comes in many different flavors. After all, for many casual and professional observers, Pacquiao/Bradley was a matter of corrupt judging, as opposed to simply inept judging. Ineptitude can be fixed, but such technologies won't be immune to corruption. If anything, it can cause corruption to reach new avenues.

But even so, to what degree? It's important to note that PunchForce doesn't actually tally whether the punches have landed. Moreover, it's not 100% accurate. Going back to the WSJ, PunchForce " had an accuracy rate of 80.5% when it came to force and 86.5% when it came to speed".

However, if we can't trust judges to score a fight properly, why would we trust them to judge technology properly?

This reminds me of Nelson 'Doc' Hamilton's attempt to improve scoring with the half point system, which simply shifts the goal posts to an endzone that doesn't exist. I'm no Luddite, but I think our assumptions about what technology can solve stem from deep misunderstandings of what defines intelligence. Intelligence, after all, isn't synonymous with 'computation'.

Looking at MMA's scoring system, for example, tallying a punch is important, but a landed punch involves so much more than simply a statistic: how the fighter reacts to the strike is merely one among many (a vindictive judge might have ignored the punches Guida landed on Maynard when Gray literally asked for them, and proceeded to ignore them: though a good reason for not tallying them might be that they were too busy laughing at the fiasco).

Who knows, perhaps one day we'll be faced with the prospects of having our judges and referees replaced. If you think the image of HAL stopping a fight sounds strange, just consider that new Volvo's can drive themselves in heavy traffic, and robots in South Korea patrol playgrounds for pedophiles.

Paul Saffo's always relevant quote bears repeating: "the future is already here...it's just distributed unevenly".

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