Once again, fans attending this week’s Masters Tournament will not be allowed to use cell phones or laptops or tablets or even pagers, as Augusta National aims to keep modern distractions outside its gates. But this year, artificial intelligence is getting a full-course pass.
The Masters app, which IBM helps manage, will feature more than 20,000 clips of action from this year’s tournament, each backed by commentary from a computer-generated voice. While the addition follows a boom in so-called generative AI technology, IBM VP of sports & entertainment partnerships Noah Syken said the project is the result of five years worth of planning.
The real groundwork has been laid over the past thirty years, as digital platforms have allowed fans to consume events like the Masters in ways they couldn’t before, when coverage was limited to print reports and CBS broadcasts. IBM, through the Masters app, has recently turned its attention to using the new distribution options to create “a personalized broadcast experience,” Syken said.
For the first time in 2019, every shot at the Masters was captured and uploaded onto the app, and later each player’s day was edited down to 20-minute full videos and three-minute highlight reels for fans to easily watch. Beginning the next year, fans were able to add certain players to a new “my group” feature in the app, which would populate with each of those players’ swings soon after they happened. Fans could specifically follow European competitors, for example, or the handful of golfers they’d selected for fantasy purposes. The experience has drawn countless plaudits, and recently netted IBM a technology and engineering Emmy award. But there was a drawback.
“What we came to realize … was when you capture every shot on every hole and you create an experience like My Group, there’s a lot of very quiet golf [videos] because there are not commentators for every shot on every hole,” Syken said.
Enter “Henry,” the internal name IBM developers gave to their computer commentator. The team trained its own model to convert tracking data into spoken descriptions, paying particular attention to make sure it was literate in golf and Masters terminology, from birdies and bogeys to bunkers and patrons.
The voice has also been trained to be variable—i.e. even if two players hit identical shots, the AI commentary will be different each time, just like a human announcer would handle them.
But don’t expect AI to fully replace Jim Nantz anytime soon. For one thing, IBM has decided its model won’t include any types of bias, even the anodyne type of preference that marks typical hometown broadcasts. The calls also still have a, well, robotic nature to them, listing out exact yardages and sticking to simple descriptions of each swing’s result. Though that could change in future years.
“As we move forward, I think you’ll see some progression in the texture that we bring to the voice,” Syken said.
Syken said IBM is already considering expanding its tool to other sports, such as tennis. It has existing relationships with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the sport similarly features hours of concurrent action each day—and not all of it currently has commentary.
While AI announcers still pale in comparison to the real thing, it wouldn’t be financially feasible to have humans call all of the action. That’s even more true for online games like fantasy football. IBM already applies some of its AI smarts to ESPN’s offering, but could in the future generate voiced recaps of every matchup. “That’s a use case that I’m sure somebody’s dreaming about right now,” Syken said.
With highlight rights, daily personalized recaps of fantasy basketball and baseball teams might not be much further away.
For now, the tool doesn’t call action live. Turnaround time varies from 30 seconds to five minutes depending on what’s being produced. But as AI tech continues improving (assuming research isn’t shut down in a bid to save the human race) that’s just another barrier to be overcome in time. At that point, high level commentating could become available for every beer league and backyard battle.
By then, it may be hard to keep the computers out from anywhere.