Let the games begin: Paris Olympics puts AI to the test

The Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will see plenty of tech alongside the athletics, with AI set to break a bunch of records. It will help to quickly capture key sporting moments and repackage highlights for broadcast, build immersive experiences for fans and even spot security issues.

Few will find much to complain about there – after all, the Olympics is often a test-bed for new technologies. But the use of technology will also spill over into the wider city, and that has some rightly concerned over surveillance.

At an event in London’s 2012 Olympic Park last week, Olympic officials and partner companies gathered to share how AI could be used at the games this summer and in future events.

AI in Paris Olympics

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told Sky News that AI could be used to spot doping, prevent cyber attacks and online bullying, secure locations – and help with athlete training and judging.

In one example, a video of a diver was shown with AI analytics counting rotations, measuring the height of the jump, and other key scoring statistics. Attendees said this could make judging more precise and give fans more information in real time. It could also be applied to other sports in the future.

“AI will greatly transform our society and it will greatly transform sport,” Bach told Sky News. “It should close the gap between smaller countries, or not so highly developed countries will have the opportunity to get better.”

Indeed, Intel unveiled an AI-powered immersive experience for fans attending the games in Paris, including a tool to analyse what sport they’d be most successful playing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Intel took that same technology to Senegal, where more than 1,000 children were scanned to scout potential top athletes.

According to AP, Intel’s chief commercial officer Christop Schell said: “We found 40 that are really promising.” Those children were further analysed to recommend a sport to focus on. Bach admitted that algorithms may not be the best way to pick a sport and that athletes should, of course, retain the right to follow their passions.

Bespoke highlight reels

Another area in which AI may make an impact is highlight reels. The athletic action is captured by the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which is working alongside its major broadcast partners (Warner Brothers and NBC) to automatically generate highlights from the huge amounts of footage. Those clips can be customised by sport, athlete and country, meaning local broadcasters can have bespoke highlights quickly and easily.

According to industry reports, the automatically generated highlight reels will be reviewed by humans to ensure accuracy; those workers will also tag the footage with key terms such as “gold-medal winners” to make it easier for broadcasters to find and work with. The aim is to eventually pass such tasks to AI, as well as dubbing or translations to widen the availability in other markets.

Indeed, in the future, Warner Bros Discovery president Andrew Georgiou said audiences may be able to request highlight reels on demand, suggesting you can start watching “a football match halfway through and you say to your device, ‘just show me the goals and the key moments from the first half,’ and within seconds you’ll have an automatically generated highlights package with voiceover,” according to a report from Broadcast Now.

It’s hard to find much fault with personalised sports highlights – imagine being able to create your own bespoke supercuts of a favourite player, or ask for the best moments from an obscure Olympic sport that otherwise lacks much coverage.

Beyond the Games

AI-powered tools will be in force well beyond the Games themselves, however. At the same time, the organising team were unveiling the sports-focused tech tools in London, and police in Paris were approving trials of surveillance technologies on the wider public.

Transport operators SNCF and RATP ran tests across four different train stations over the weekend, according to a report from German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

The tests targeted attendees of a Black Eyed Peas concert and a football match. The surveillance technology aims to pull in imagery from more than 100 cameras to be analysed by AI to watch for unattended bags, a person on the ground, and potential weapons, and to spot crowd control issues. The system won’t use facial recognition, which is banned in France.

If successful, the police intend to use AI-powered technology to boost its surveillance capabilities during the Olympic Games. That has raised criticism from rights groups, who have argued that increased security measures at previous Olympics became the norm after the games ended.

“What were supposed to be special security arrangements for the special circumstances of the games, ended up being normalised,” La Quadrature du Net campaigner Noémie Levain told the BBC earlier this year.

The French government has pledged to evaluate the surveillance technologies after the Games end. Plus, the avoidance of facial recognition should help stave off the worst criticisms – after all, it’s difficult to argue that an abandoned bag has the right to privacy.

Where and when to use AI

As ever, how and where AI is used matters, even in sports. In some cases, it’s difficult to see much harm, while others should raise concerns.

For example, generating highlight reels for obscure sports in other languages seems like an easy win. While those employees currently toiling to put together clip packages may one day lose their jobs, the OBS has so far pledged to keep a human in the loop.

We should exercise greater caution when using AI to boost player training, as bias and privilege can affect the results. Indeed, the teams with the biggest training budgets now are likely to benefit most from AI-tweaked athletic regimes, as they’ll have access to such systems and the means to implement the recommendations.

As always, any technology used for security, particularly by police forces, needs particular care, caution and regulation to ensure proportional surveillance and privacy protection. Paris might well be the first “AI games” – hopefully, the organisers will choose to set the standard for caution rather than racing at record pace into such technologies.

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Nicole Kobie
Nicole Kobie

Nicole is a journalist and author who specialises in the future of technology and transport. Her first book is called Green Energy, and she's working on her second, a history of technology. At TechFinitive she frequently writes about innovation and how technology can foster better collaboration.