World Cup technology: Who will win in 2050?

Robots competing in the RoboCup Image copyright AP
Image caption Will robots play in future World Cups?

"And the World Cup 2050 is awarded to...(drum roll)...Mars!"

Sound far-fetched? Not if a recent suggestion of future "inter-planetary competitions" is anything to go by.

Some might have felt references by Fifa's chairman to football in space aimed to detract from the row about awarding the 2022 event to Qatar.

Others might note that if a tournament did go ahead on Mars, it would at least be cooler than in Qatar.

But Sepp Blatter did raise a serious question - how will football, and sport in general, develop in an ever-changing, tech-focused world? And what will the World Cup be like in 2050?

There is no doubt that humans seem to be getting better at sport.

If the winner of the 2012 Olympic marathon had competed in the 1904 race, he would have won by nearly an hour and a half.

And if Jesse Owens, who took gold in 1936, had competed against Usain Bolt in the 100 metres at London 2012, he would still have had 14 metres left when Bolt crossed the finishing line.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sport has become a science since the World Cup was held in England in 1966

These days sport is a science, with technology playing a huge role - from 3D printed trainers and specially-designed equipment to data analytics that monitor athletes' every move.

Look closely at the British Lions next time they play and you may see a small box underneath their shirts.

They are hooked up to a data network, with the GPS packs on their backs collating a range of data, from how fast and far they have run to their heart rates and temperatures.

Rugby clubs have been using such technology since 2009, although it remains banned on football pitches.

Guy Lidbetter, a chief technology officer at Olympic technology provider Atos, thinks football will become data-driven, however.

"Inevitably they will come to realise its potential and we will reach a stage where there are monitors in shirts and on boots, feeding back all kinds of data to coaches," he says.

Ex-NFL player Chris Kluwe writes a lot about the future of sport and thinks data analytics will be used by players as well as coaches.

"Augmented reality is a way of taking all that data and enhancing how you play the game in real time," he said in a recent speech.

He imagined a system of cameras in each corner of a football stadium, giving a bird's eye view of the pitch, coupled with sensors and accelerometers on players' helmets.

"You take all that information and you stream it to your players. The good teams stream it in a way the players can use; the bad ones have information overload."

"Now your IT department is just as important as your scouting department, and data-mining is not just for nerds any more."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A man in an exo-skeleton appeared at the opening ceremony of this year's World Cup in Brazil

Technology could also be used to give the fans a more immersive experience, Mr Kluwe says.

"We can put Google Glass under a helmet and get a sense of what it is like to be running down a field at 100 miles an hour, the blood pounding in your ears.

"You can have a sense of what it is like to have a 250lb man running at you."

There is plenty of technology on show in Brazil, including goal-line sensors, heat-bonded footballs and vanishing spray used by referees during free kicks.

But it was a mind-controlled exo-skeleton - worn by Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic man to kick the first ball of the tournament - that has stuck in the minds of many.

So will future World Cups feature similar robotics?

The technology is clearly available to make players even more superhuman but for Mr Lidbetter at Atos it will be "a question of cultural acceptance".

"Do the fans want football to go the same way as Formula 1, where the car matters more than the driver?"

Image copyright AP
Image caption The players in a robot World Cup may be a little better behaved than their human counterparts

Professor Alexandre da Sliva Simoes is a chair of the RoboCup, an annual football competition for robots.

He believes there will definitely be robots on the pitch in future - but they won't necessarily be playing.

"I expect that in 2050 we will not have human referees any more. Humans will probably be present as supervisors of an automatic referee that can be a software or even a robot," he says.

And he has a challenge for Fifa.

"In 2050, a football team composed of fully-autonomous humanoid robots will play against the human winners of the World Cup."

His forecast? The robots will win.

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