One out of every two people watched part of the FIFA World Cup last year. Yet in spite of the sport’s popularity, there is no robot that could sit next to you on a weekend afternoon, sip on a cold beer, and contemplate your team’s woes and successes.

When you sit down in front of a television to watch a football match, you understand what you are watching, but there are many nuances that we take for granted. What would it take for a machine to do the same thing?

It takes an understanding of who influences a football match for humans to follow it closely, but unlike machines, we had years to learn about the players. Automated systems need to form a similar idea of a football match, but they have no eyes with which to observe.

In ongoing research in the Department of AI at the University of Malta, machines follow matches through the public discussions of Twitter. We show how machines can use Twitter users’ narration to figure out who is playing even before the match starts. One way how this information can be applied is to collect more tweets during the match, which leads to the second major challenge.

Humans can recognise a goal, a foul or a substitution simply by observing. However, to exhibit the same intelligence that humans have, a machine needs to read tens of thousands of tweets and isolate the salient mo­ments. Therefore, in our research we reduce the problem of tracking matches into two.

Firstly, machines need to understand who drives a football match – the players. Secondly, they need to discern between the important and trivial moments – find the tweets and the keywords within to explain what is happening.

Why stop at football matches? By understanding events, machines can go beyond writing sports timelines; they could even observe and report from emergency situations, like earthquakes, to aid relief efforts.

Machines may be unable to share our passion for the beautiful game, but they can share our understanding. That comprehension could be the key for AI to follow football like we do. Who knows? Maybe in time, machines will even be able to weigh in on the Messi-Ronaldo quarrels.

Nicholas Mamo is a research support officer at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking, and a postgraduate student in the Department of AI at the University of Malta.

The research work described in this article is partially funded by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme (Malta). The scholarships are part-financed by the European Union – European Social Fund (ESF) – Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 ‘Investing in human capital to create more opportunities and promote the well-being of society’.

Did you know?

• Existing tensions between El Salvador and Honduras escalated so much during a 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier match that a short-lived war broke out, dubbed the 100 Hours War.

• When the Ivory Coast, embroiled in civil war, qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, star striker Didier Drogba pleaded for his country to lay down its weapons, which prompted a ceasefire and new peace talks.

• The first televised English football match was in 1937 between Arsenal and… Arsenal Reserves.

• Some football personalities are out of this world, literally. Arsène Wenger, ex-Arsenal coach, has a minor planet named after him – 33179 Arsènewenger.

• Stephen Hawking found that the England national team performed better when wearing red because it made the players more confident and gave them an aggressive appearance.

• The city of Lusail in Qatar will host games from the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but it is still under construction.

For more trivia see:

Sound bites

• Scientists have developed a 3D-printed robotic hand which can play simple musical phrases on the piano by just moving its wrist. And while the robot is no virtuoso, it demonstrates just how challenging it is to replicate all the abilities of a human hand, and how much complex movement can still be achieved through design. The robot hand, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, was made by 3D-printing soft and rigid materials together to replicate of all the bones and ligaments – but not the muscles or tendons – in a human hand. Even though this limited the robot hand’s range of motion compared to a human hand, the researchers found that a surprisingly wide range of movement was still possible by relying on the hand’s mechanical design.

• Mice with vision enhanced by nanotechnology were able to see infrared light as well as visible light, reports a study published in the journal Cell. A single injection of nanoparticles in the mice’s eyes bestowed infrared vision for up to 10 weeks with minimal side effects, allowing them to see infrared light even during the day and with enough specificity to distinguish between different shapes. These findings could lead to advancements in human infrared vision technologies, including potential applications in civilian encryption, security and military operations.

For more soundbites listen to Radio Mocha: Mondays at 7pm on Radju Malta and Thursdays at 4pm on Radju Malta 2

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