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AI expert Prof Alexiei Dingli explains how new technologies are changing the way sport is analysed and helping student-athletes reach their full potential

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is rapidly becoming an important part of most aspects of life – whether we realise it or not. And the world of sport is certainly no exception, with new technology poised to completely change the game.

Simply put, AI is a field of study which seeks to create intelligent machines. One of its major strengths is the ability to analyse large sets of data and optimise processes, both of which are tasks that can be very usefully applied to education and sport.

Alexiei Dingli, a Professor of Artificial Intelligence within the Faculty of ICT at the University of Malta, believes it is inevitable that AI will become a critical component of education and sports development.

“Today,” begins Prof Dingli, “we have systems capable of monitoring students in their daily life and personalising their educational and sports activity to maximise their strengths, reduce their weaknesses and help them achieve more. Some people consider this the holy grail of AI since we’re helping students reach their full potential, but at their own pace.”

Today’s technology means that most aspects of sport can be accurately measured and recorded, and AI used to develop plans based on that data. Moreover, these systems have become significantly cheaper and more accessible over the years, with a shift from expensive dedicated hardware to powerful software capable of achieving the same results, sometimes better.

In football, for example, high-definition cameras can track the movements of each play while sensors such as smart watches can provide further biological information. An AI system can then analyse all those data points individually and compare them to the player’s past performance and to international best practice.

“After crunching all the numbers, a plan is sent directly to the player and to his coaches instructing them about the best course of action in order to improve their performance,” explains Prof Dingli. “The methodology is relatively cheap and very effective, giving players a significant advantage over others.”

In team games, AI can also analyse a player’s performance with respect to the rest of their team, detecting anomalies and suggesting changes to the team composition. It can study opponents’ moves, devising strategies which effectively neutralise the opponent’s game plan.

Even more futuristically, Prof Dingli notes that AI can also go a step further and effectively direct a game remotely.

“Using the vibrations of the smartwatches on the player’s wrist, it can communicate with the players during game play, instructing them to move towards certain positions or even informing them that an opportunity is coming their way. So in essence, an AI can help to analyse the data, propose changes and also orchestrate the gameplay of a match,” he says.

The benefits of all this are many and various. Because AI can collect and process far more detailed and precise data than could ever be achieved manually, it allows instructors to spot patterns, track improvements and pitfalls over time, and even predict future issues, all personalised to the student or athlete in question.

“Only through a personalised approach can we hope to get everyone to reach their full potential,” adds Prof Dingli. “Of course, this is very difficult to achieve using just human coaches since it involves a lot of efforts but when combined with an AI, all of these things suddenly become possible.”

While new approaches are never easy to introduce, Prof Dingli believes the key to increasing adoption is to ensure the new processes benefit every stakeholder and give them value.

For teachers and coaches, access to such detailed real-time data about their students can help identify problems and develop the best possible options, while for students and athletes, AI holds the promise of a digital coach: providing them with vital information, giving them real-time suggestions and answering their queries.

“All of this is possible with today’s technology,” Prof Dingli concludes. “We just need to embrace it!” 

The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in October 2024 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to cbonnici@mcs.edu.mt.