Whether it’s managing your home, recommending TV programmes, automating driving or diagnosing diseases and assisting surgery, artificial intelligence (AI) is a game changer that is embedded in our everyday lives. As AI develops, it is being used in ways never previously imagined. Today, we can add coaching a football team to that list.
Indeed, football minnows Wingate & Finchley FC, who currently play in the Isthmian Premier League, have partnered with The Big Bang Fair to install the kind of technology that might normally only be associated with the world’s richest clubs: they have appointed an AI as a football coach. In what is believed to be the first time in English football that a team will be set-up for a match by an AI, the AI coach will recommend the club’s starting eleven formation and tactics for an upcoming competitive league fixture.
The AI football coach has been created by a team of artificial intelligence experts at GreenShoot Labs and behaves as an ‘expert system’, using a reasoning engine to determine the best formation and style of play against a given opponent. Once it is in use, the AI football coach stores data from each match and as patterns begin to emerge related to the team’s performance it is programmed to evolve and make even more targeted recommendations.
The AI football coach was commissioned by The Big Bang Fair, the UK’s largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), to excite young people about STEM by highlighting how it can be used in something they love: football.
So how exactly will the AI football coach help Wingate & Finchley FC? Well, forget former England manager Kevin Keegan’s one-size fits all approach of “score more goals than the opposition”. Instead, the AI football coach will provide tailor-made tactics and can evolve its thinking over the course of a season. The AI has a simple conversational interface (via an Amazon Echo) allowing the club’s staff to easily speak with the AI about football tactics and team management without requiring expertise or training in AI.
Ahead of a game, a squad’s attributes are shared with the AI, from fitness levels, motivation and types of players to strongest areas on the pitch. In addition, details on the strengths, weaknesses and the typical player formation of an opposing team are supplied to the AI. The AI football coach will then determine what it believes to be the most effective formation (such as 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1) and style of play to adopt against a specific opponent.
As any pundit or fan will tell you, football is a game of two halves, and a match can change in seconds. To help the human coaching staff make tactical decisions during the ebb and flow of a game, the AI can also provide recommendations and inspiration around substitutions and gameplay in relation to real-time scores. So, if the team is 2 – 0 down, the AI coach might suggest, when prompted, a more offensive style by replacing a midfielder with a striker. Or if a player is red-carded the AI can suggest an appropriate change of tactics. All decisions that are made can be relayed to the AI football coach, which will store all of the data and use this to aid future tactical decisions.
Dave Norman, manager of Wingate & Finchley FC, said: “The fundamentals of football are exactly the same whether they come from a virtual coach or a human one. As a teacher as a well as a football manager, I’m a big supporter of The Big Bang Fair’s goal to get more kids into STEM, so I was more than happy to add an AI to the coaching team here at Wingate & Finchley. I think it will complement our set-up immensely and hopefully help us pick up three points!”
Beth Elgood, Director of Communications at EngineeringUK, added: “At The Big Bang Fair we are always looking at ways to inspire young people and demonstrate to them, their teachers and their parents the many surprising applications of STEM. It’s clear that AI already plays a significant role in all our lives and many future jobs are likely to need artificial intelligence skills. We wanted to combine the possibilities of AI with something we know a lot of young people enjoy – sport – to inspire young people. We hope the AI football coach can excite football-loving children and shine a light on the many ways STEM plays a role in our lives.”
Fans of AI and football won’t have to wait long until the AI football coach is working at Wingate & Finchley FC: it will be taking its place on the training ground and in the dugout alongside manager Dave Norman for a league clash against Brighton’s Whitehawk FC on Saturday 9 February 2019.
In addition to its role at Wingate & Finchley, the intention is for the AI football coach to be released as an Alexa Skill that anyone can download and interact with, whether they are professional football managers looking for a bit of AI assistance, a teacher who runs a school team or youngsters inspired by the exciting possibilities of STEM.
Tim Deeson, of Greenshoot Labs, concluded: “We’re eager to see what happens when you introduce AI into an environment which is typically not used to having access to it, in this case, a non-league football club. This project demonstrates just how easy it is to do that in this day and age: in just a few short weeks we have been able to develop an AI system for a team that they can easily query and interact with that helps them dig deeper into what sort of playing approach they could have. Over time the AI will learn from the data it gathers and can become an even more insightful tactical aid.
Recent advancements in AI have made it more and more accessible and the upshot of that is we’re seeing artificial intelligence being applied in all sorts of innovative and interesting ways. It’s a really exciting time to be part of the AI industry, but we’ve only just scratched the surface of what is possible. For the next generation of AI professionals, it’s only going to get more exciting.”
The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair is the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK. The event is taking place from 13-16 March 2019 at The NEC in Birmingham. For more information, please visit:https://www.thebigbangfair.co.uk.