Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technology and Sports Officials

I have written elsewhere about the changes in sports broadcasting that interactive technologies will bring in the near future.

Advancing user of sensors, microchips and smart materials and networking them may mean big changes for professional sports. Along with training assistance and broadcasting innovation, sports refereeing will likely undergo some interesting changes soon owing to these and other technological advancements. The use of increasingly small and wired components could one day allow some judgment calls in sporting contests to be automatically determined and allow the still-necessary human referees to concentrate on other aspects of the game that require their judgment. It is unlikely that we can or should eliminate human referees, but the use of technology could be a useful tool in allowing them to focus more closely on certain aspects while automating some other rule monitoring.

When most people think of technology and sports referees, they first think of video replay technology. Video technology is a crude precursor to what can be done with current information technology and professional sports refereeing. Video, because of the delays it requires is seen by many as simply inadequate. It has become clear that this is too cumbersome and slows down the game unacceptably for fans and players and everyone except television advertisers who love the extended duration of undivided attention that these delays mean.

Technological application in sports refereeing will be more commonplace primarily due to the great reduction in the size of technological devices today, especially microprocessors. Most of the personal computers of the past decades had a processor about the size of a wallet-sized photo. But of course they have gotten much smaller in recent years. Specialized chips can today be reduced to the size of a grain of rice--or smaller. It is inevitable that these ever smaller, ever cheaper devices will be implanted in sporting equipment, uniforms, the field or playing court and the ball itself.

Implanting a microchip in a baseball for example, could allow sensors, the computers which monitor them and the officiating crew which monitors these in turn, to determine whether a ball was, for example, out of bounds. Or if the home plate in a baseball stadium was wired, whether the ball was inside, outside or right in the middle of the strike zone. It could tell whether a ball was foul or whether it was a home-run, based on which side of the foul/fair pole it passed. (I'm continually amazed at how difficult a call this is for umpires to make).

Perhaps more sophisticated but certainly technologically feasible is tracking the exact moment a fielded and thrown ball suddenly stopped its trajectory and whether the additional pressure of the base-runners foot was applied to first base before or after the sudden stop of the ball's momentum was recorded. Modern GPS and tracking technology will allow sensors to determine the speed and movement of a ball and the exact instant when it stops. This could be compared instantaneously with pressure sensors on the first base bag to determine whether the ball stopped (i.e. arrived in the first baseman's glove) before the runner's foot touched the base.

Similarly, a chip embedded into a (American) football together with sensors embedded along the length of the goal line would allow referees (or their sideline monitors) to determine quickly whether a ball carrier at the bottom of a goal-line pileup actually crossed the line. This might alternatively be done using precision GPS technology. In either case, this would relieve the field referees from disassembling the mountain of 300 lb men in the scrum to find out where the ball is or whether it crossed the goal line during the squirming that takes place even after the sound of the referee’s whistle.

New materials being developed called "smart materials" could be used in uniforms and shoes. These are cloth or other synthetics that can contain sensors without feeling or wearing any differently than normal cotton clothing. For example I can imagine shoes having microchips (as thin as a postage stamp) to record whether a player's foot or both feet were in or out of bounds. It could also likely be used for 3-second calls in the NBA given that the lane could be wired enough to sense whether the same player is standing in front of the basket for more than 3 seconds.

Sensors would be helpful to referees on the field and GPS technology. Tennis lines, basketball lines, the lane, 3-point line, football out of bounds. Sensors are so small and inexpensive these days that they could easily be used to line a field or court along the out of bounds lines or in the case of football, the goal line. In cooperation with sensors embedded in the balls or equipment, they could be used to quickly identify and generate a visible or audible signal for out of bounds or other infractions. As noted above they could identify scoring in a goal-line pileup but they could also be used to spot tennis balls that are served long or otherwise on the line. Currently tennis officials use some form of camera monitoring to see on which side of the line a ball landed. But increasingly we see an aversion to the need for a human to visually review a videotape. Sensor technology would presumably emit an 'in' or 'out' call immediately.

The technology for many of these advances is already available. The only impediment to seeing them put to use and to relieving modern referees from the burden of catching every player's movement on every play is acceptance of these innovations. Agreement would ultimately have to come from sports league owners but opinions of general managers, coaches, players and fans would also have to be considered. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these applications of technology came in piece-meal with media sponsorship of certain components.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Compensation in Question

For many years well educated, experienced (and sometimes well-connected) people have generally earned more than their workplace peers. American labor history has traditionally treated seniority, knowledge and skills as most important in deciding how much to pay someone. But given current trends in the business environment those standards may no longer be applicable. Certainly worker longevity and workforce continuity hold some value to business and other organizations but trends in employee turnover and the corporate emphasis on near-term results has undoubtedly eroded this value. Technology and the ability to measure more precisely a worker's activity and contribution may render obsolete these traditional measures of employee value and displace them with more quantifiable measures of worth to a firm.

Experience and seniority sometimes matter, but the employee-employer relationship has evolved to place much greater attention to a worker's contribution to the firm's short-term goals. And with the exception of unionized and some state employees, few workers expect or negotiate any additional compensation for being with a firm for an extended period of time. Nor can firms today expect to employ the same person for much more than the current product cycle given the fluid and unpredictable movement of global production and supply chains.

Paying wages according to an employee's true value to a firm is increasingly measured in terms of productivity. In the past this been largely limited to piece-work, typically on a farm or small manufacturer where the worker is paid a fixed amount per bushel harvested or other unit of measurement. Many factories in early-industralizing economies pay workers by the piece and therefore the more productive are compensated above others although at a relatively lower wage than those in other industries. Farm workers are still often paid this way. In advanced industrialized economies currently the only system of compensation that factors a worker's productivity are in sales commissions where those who generate the most sales for a firm are more highly compensated than those who don't.

Productivity is broadly meant to mean the level of output per unit of hours worked. In the 1990s, productivity of American workers grew very quickly owing largely to the Internet and the efficiencies that digital communication and information handling allowed workers. Technology has historically increased worker productivity from the time of crude tools fashioned with wood or metals to the telegraph, printing press, telephone, etc.

But if productivity is what firms are buying in today's labor market, and if the application of technology in the workplace results in higher productivity then it stands to reason that employers seek those with advanced technological skills because they produce more per hour worked. In the past 20 years, technological aptitude has accrued to the younger (and therefore) less experienced workers. Management guru, Don Tapscott says, for the first time in history "younger people know more than their elders about the biggest innovation of the day." This disparity between skills and experience leads me to conclude that there will be pressures to limit the wages of the most senior (and generally less technologically adept) while inflating wages of the digital natives and neo-natives.

Information technology makes productivity more measurable and with the skills obsolescence cycle shorter, I wonder how we will in the future decide how much each person earns. I suppose the first reaction is that we shouldn't decide, we should let the market decide. If that were allowed to happen, most of us would be in for big changes. The most productive workers would receive the highest compensation in a purely market-base approach to determining salaries and that would in large part mean the younger are paid more than older workers.

[Postscript: Of course Marx would have added, "Need" as a factor.  "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his need." Would it be fair if a single parent with 4 children who produces as much as I do (a married, childless man) should be paid more based on his need?]