A robot umpire illuminates the future of AI

In a minor league baseball game in the Atlantic League, a robot called balls and strikes this week. But there was still a home-plate umpire, and he was still essential. This is a nice metaphor for the future of AI-assisted work.

As described in The New York Times, the system applies rules about the strike zone to each batter, tracks the ball as it crosses the plate, and decides if it’s a ball or strike. It then sends a message to the umpire’s iPhone, and subsequently to an Apple AirPod in the umpire’s ear. The umpire then calls the pitch. The system is going into all the Atlantic League parks for use in games for the rest of the season.

The umpire still has a job to do. Some balls bounce in front of the plate and pass through the strike zone — those can fool the system but not the umpire. The umpire must also grant time outs and call checked swings (always a tricky judgment call), catcher’s interference, balks, and plays at the plate, such as a runner sliding under a catcher’s tag. And if an argument breaks out in a game, it’s likely to start at home plate. The umpire’s job is maintain order and potentially eject players for inappropriate conduct.

(No word yet on whether the robot listens for curse words uttered by the batter and ejects him for profanity.)

According to the pitchers, batters, and umpire in that game, the robot umpire’s strike zone is not quite the same as what they’re used to. It calls more high and low strikes, including deceptive and nearly unhittable breaking balls that catch the bottom of the strike zone and dive down towards the catcher’s feet. It’s also stingy on the sides, calling balls just off the plate where some umpires would previously have awarded strikes.

This change has seemed inevitable for years, as was clear anyone who’s watched a game broadcast has seen the ball’s location painted on a virtual strike zone graphic. “Why can’t they just use that to make calls in a game?”, we asked. And now they are. I expect this system to appear in major league games within a year or two.

You’d better get used to working with robots

There’s been a big focus on AI taking jobs away that people now hold. The Brookings Institution estimates that a quarter of US jobs will be severely disrupted by automation. My former colleague Craig Le Clair actually wrote a book about it: Invisible Robots in the Quiet of the Night.

But I think the umpires’ situation is more representative of what’s coming than automation just blowing jobs away, as it did in automated factories.

As I studied customer service chatbots and virtual agents for my book with P.V. Kannan, The Age of Intent, it became clear that the future of customer service is not robots answering questions — it’s robots and people together figuring out the best answers to questions. (There’s a whole chapter on that, and we also wrote about it in Sloan Management Review.)

We all know this, even if the knowledge hasn’t reached the surface of our brains.

Are you really surprised when you operate a kiosk to order at Panera Bread, and then a worker gets your order ready for you? Or when that order comes with a little printed slip about what’s in it?

I drive a Tesla. One of my favorite features is this: when you signal to change lanes, the big dashboard display, which shows you the cars around you, makes those cars glow red if they’re in the space you’re about to go into. All cars have blind spots; Tesla has figured out the ideal way to tell you that there’s a car in that spot you’re about to occupy. I’m still driving, but I enjoy the help.

Whether you’re analyzing inventory levels, planning shifts in marketing, or writing copy, AI and robots are going to be there to make suggestions. Is it really that different to see an umpire getting help on balls and strikes or a writer seeing the red squiggly line to alert her that she’s written a sentence in passive voice?

Jobs will disappear. Jobs will change. That’s inevitable. But if you think the future is not about humans collaborating with machines, you’re missing the very clear signs that it’s already happening all around us.

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