When umpiring goes wrong in baseball, it’s hard to accept. When it goes really wrong, when power is abused, helmets thrown and expensive beer senselessly wasted, the fans demand robots. But robots will not make you feel better.
They might make the right calls. It won’t matter. Not when the right call goes against you.
Two new studies out of The Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Lab in Seattle show that humans view robots as moral entities. The resulting paper is entitled Do People Hold a Humanoid Robot Morally Accountable for the Harm It Causes.
Yes. They do.
Now, granted, this is a humanoid robot and it’s doing purposeful wrong. But the study assesses the reaction to harm caused and umpires, by the very nature of their existence, cause harm.
People tend to behave towards artifacts in a social way, particularly if artifacts exhibit some degree of autonomy such as robot vacuum cleaners. Aspects of anthropomorphism—the attribution of human qualities to non-humans—are reported in studies on the experience of robot vacuum cleaners.
To get away from the actual research for a moment, just think on your own experiences.
When your computer does not react as you wish, do you react logically? Or do you call it names and think about smashing it? Though the machine is rational, are you? You ever hear your dad working on a car? Did he sound calm? Or was his language making the neighbours blush?
In a high stress situation, like a Major League Baseball game, this will only get worse. Fans and players will not only treat the robot umpire as human but will assign it morality and motivation.
Just ask Curt Schilling, who in 2003 smashed a QuesTec camera installed to provide mechanical oversight to umpires. He said:
The QuesTec system in this ballpark is a joke. The umpires have admitted it. They hate it. In the last three starts I’ve made here, multiple times umpires have said to the catcher, “It’s a pitch I want to call a strike but the machine won’t let me.”
Robots might make the right calls but that won’t stop arguments and you won’t feel any better about these calls. You may have less empathy towards a robot even while you assign it morality. This translates into smashing and ballparks littered with the robot dead.
Machines are not the answer.
Baseball should have better oversight of its umpires. While they shouldn’t answer to reporters –as facing the partisan New York and Boston media will only exert more pressure on their objectivity– baseball should have a visible disciplinary and public review process. It should hold the umpires to a higher standard of behaviour.
But make no mistake, robots will answer to no one. And they won’t make you feel any better.