Op-ed: Why we need to embrace AI in sport – Commonwealth

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Op-ed by Anne Wafula Strike MBE, PLY

It’s the first day of the Olympics in 2040. The awe-inspiring spectacle of the opening ceremony has given way to lined tracks encircled by packed arenas waiting for the 100-meter dash to begin.

But, instead of well-trained men, their country’s name proudly displayed on their chests, the runners lining up are sophisticated robots, and the real competition is about who is furthest ahead in the technology race.

Some envision this future when we talk about AI and sport—the consequence of an alliance that would lead to the death of sport as we know it. To others, it is a prime opportunity and an invaluable tool for boosting the power of sport to help countries achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as good health and well-being, by the internationally agreed-upon 2030 deadline.  

A force for good

This notion of AI and sport as a force for good was the centre of the recent Commonwealth Debate on Sport for Sustainable Development. Held annually to mark International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, the debate is a critical global policy discussion involving senior ministers, government officials, athletes, academics, sports advocates and young people.

There were strong points on both sides. It is clear that AI is here to stay, and we can’t ignore it. In fact, according to research, the market size of global artificial intelligence in sport was valued at $2.2 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $29.7 billion by 2032.

Leagues and other sporting organisations are already using AI to analyse games, improve player performance, create training regimes and build sophisticated performance-enhancing gear such as footballs, golf clubs, running shoes and bicycles.

As a global leader in helping countries to integrate sport into strategies focused on improving education and health, boosting youth engagement, and tackling conflict, the Commonwealth recognised the importance of putting the AI issue on the table for countries to consider. 

Call to action

As leaders prepare to meet in Samoa in October for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the clear call to action is to embrace AI as a blessing and to see it as a gift that could speed up the sluggish pace of progress towards the SDG – even in the face of nasty surprises such as global pandemics. 

As a Paralympian and the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Champion for Equality in Sport, I see the potential. Certainly, anything that could make the game more inclusive and give people with disabilities more options will be welcomed. One of the crucial points made at the Commonwealth debate was that AI can be used to put a spotlight on inequities. For example, the ability to collect and process data that lays bare gender disparities can strengthen advocacy for fairness in sport. 

Anne Wafula Strike MBE, PLY is a Paralympian and the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Champion for Equality in Sport.

But there was also a strong warning to pay attention to the fine print on the fast-unfolding era of AI. In the Commonwealth debate, examples were given of how AI algorithms with built-in biases negatively impacted women’s sport and increased inequalities among players and clubs. And, of course, there are questions about regulation, infrastructure, access, and delivery, as well as a strategy to address the widening digital divide between the richer, more developed countries and poorer, less developed countries.

The Commonwealth and AI

To help countries reap AI’s benefits while avoiding pitfalls, the Commonwealth has created the Artificial Intelligence Consortium (CAIC). With a membership of global tech firms, world-leading research institutions, non-profit organisations, and at least six representative Commonwealth countries, the consortium is well-placed to steer members through this complex new world of AI applications. 

The Commonwealth has also partnered with global tech giant Intel to roll out a free AI for Youth training programme to all member countries as part of its Year of Youth activities.

Sport is central to SDG achievement. It is vital for a healthy population. In fact, we believe it is critical to addressing global challenges such as the growing rates of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs). At last count, NCDs, which include diabetes and cancer, were responsible for 41 million deaths every year, according to the World Health Organisation.

It is clear that AI can help us with these goals if used strategically and ethically, but we also understand that it must never be to the detriment of sports integrity. What we need to turn our attention to now, as we pause to celebrate International Day for Sport for Development and Peace, is how to work together to accomplish this.

We certainly don’t want a Hollywood prediction to come true with robots replacing us on the tracks, but we have an opportunity to increase our pace of travel toward a world where our 17 development goals become reality. 

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