Published on
July 15, 2021 10:30:00 AM PDT July 15, 2021 10:30:00 AM PDTth, July 15, 2021 10:30:00 AM PDT

Tips From The Pros

Ross Kurcab is a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and a professional sports field consultant with 30 years’ experience
as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program
and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IN SPORTS TURF MANAGEMENT

I have been asked about my thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI) in the sports turf industry and what the impacts might mean for the sports field manager. It’s a topic that will change many if not every industry in time and worth examining for the professional field manager.

What does AI really mean?

Definitions vary a bit depending on the source but I like this definition from Dictionary.com “The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.”

There are serious and legitimate concerns by many far smarter than I that such advances come with big risks, a discussion beyond the scope of this blog. I’m interested in the introduction of AI into the turfgrass and sports field management industry and the concern that such technologies will cut jobs, replace certain positions and disrupt employment in the industry. Consider the very basic nature of a turfgrass manager as a daily problem-solver/decision-maker and the read-and-react skills required to do this effectively and we have to at least ask, will “machine learning” eventually lead to the turfgrass and sports field manager being replaced by a set of algorithms?

Who would the athletes and TV commentators blame for a slip?

At the same time, AI can be either an obstacle or opportunity, depending on one’s attitude. Sports field and turfgrass managers of all kinds are used to adaptation, and this will serve them well as more and more AI is coming online.

AI is not just any new technology or automation.

True AI, in the “self-learning” sense, is just in it’s infancy in the world of turfgrass and sports field management from what I see, check out the “Resources of the Month” below for a couple of examples. We need to distinguish true AI, as defined above, from new technologies, which are not necessarily AI. For example, we have seen in recent years robotic field stripers come into the market. In the right application, they are a great tool. But robotic painters, or mowers or any other new technology isn’t a threat to replace humans until the technology begins to replace decision making; and even then it will take a while before AI can gobble-up all those daily decisions made by the modern sports field manager. That role is the domain of the humans, for now.

We are, however, gaining valuable information from new technologies like never before. The job is far more data-driven and less gut instinct these days and the new technologies have allowed many on the sports field management teams to concentrate their efforts on less mundane and simple issues and gain efficiencies in the organizational and environmental resources used to provide safe, playable fields.

Example: Irrigation controllers.

Most field managers I know have an awful lot on their plates these days with many working long hours for big chunks of the year. For them, any technology that takes a few things off that plate is to be welcomed. Consider that it was only a few generations ago that irrigation controllers were just humans pulling hoses and heads, or manually turning valves on and off if they were lucky. Electronic and hydraulic irrigation controllers and valves changed all that. I imagine there was at least some level of job displacement when they hit the markets years ago, but who would give up their irrigation controllers today and go back to manual irrigation?

Now we see irrigation controllers that do qualify as true AI in that they can take in various bits of information from sensors in the field, weather stations and even internet weather forecasts to pretty much eliminate the daily irrigation decisions made by many turfgrass managers. To me, that’s just more of the daily, time-consuming tactical parts of the job that have to be done well, but add up to less time spent on more strategic items like aligning goals and objectives with the organizational outlook. The sports field manager can do a lot more towards ensuring field quality by getting involved in the event management of a field than by carefully programming irrigation on a daily basis, not discounting the importance of that task.

There are many benefits to the turf management team from these technologies that allow them to concentrate their skills and knowledge where it will do the most good and be freed up from some more mundane parts of the job description. Automatic irrigation controllers didn’t mean turf managers no longer managed irrigation. It just meant they didn’t have to spend so much time on it.

TURF TIPS 101 MANAGING THE INTRODUCTION OF AI:

Whether you are a so-called early adopter of new ideas and technologies or take a more cautious approach, the simple truth is that AI and new technologies will be coming online more and more in sports field and facilities management, whether we like it or not. The pace of change will only quicken. I believe those that can learn the skill of changing skills and/or careers will be the ones that thrive in such an environment.

Ignorance is not always bliss.

There are some things we’re better off not knowing about, I’ll let you and your imagination come up with some examples. But most often knowledge destroys or minimizes fear. When you take the time to educate yourself on new ideas and technologies, they become less fearful. The successful turf manager not only does this but also helps everyone on the team understand the basics of new ideas and technologies.

Change is constant.

Even if you are the one that still carries a flip phone, you eventually did get a mobile phone. In sports field management, or any other industry, we have been managing change since the industry was created. New technologies have been introduced constantly. One of the benefits of experience is that you can look back and see how much things have changed since you began your career. Look at the technologies we have seen in sports field management in the last 30-40 years and it is astonishing, really. And from what I’ve seen we haven’t lost jobs, quite the contrary, we can’t find people to fill all of them. But real artificial intelligence, machine learning, is a game-changer and who can really predict what the impacts will be in a few decades, or less?

Even though the idea of change is truly constant, the pace of change is rapidly increasing from what I read and see. It is those that can adapt quickly that will thrive.

That crazy unpredictability (e.g. adjusting for weather) that can drive a sports field manager crazy may save your job.

A job managing a complex biological system like turfgrass in a sports field is threatened less by automation, which favors more controlled, predictable systems, according to a study by McKinsey and Co. A “gardener” falls into this category. Another finding was that only a small fraction of jobs that are automated are fully automated. Someone has to manage the AI. Even as sports field managers are collecting and using more and more data, I doubt we’ll ever see an entirely data driven sports field management program in such a low predictability system.

Weather forecasters work with very complex natural systems. Today we have several large computer model-driven forecasts that can be automatically generated. But anyone whose livelihood really depends on good weather predictions will go with a human’s instincts and experience in analyzing the data and model predictions. We have AI weather forecasts and I haven’t noticed any loss in forecaster jobs, quite the contrary.

It’s not all milk and honey.

All this is not to discount the rate of transformation and even disruption AI will eventually bring to every industry. Automation and new technologies have always disrupted workers, and the pain of losing a job is very real on people and their families. More than ever it’s a good idea to review your job or career to determine how susceptible to this disruption it is to automation. What skills would be a good idea to develop before these changes come?

I believe the most significant impact to sports field jobs by AI will likely be the rate of change in the job, not job elimination. Those that are less able to change will likely pay the price for rigidity, but those that can be flexible and change quickly and often will gain the inevitable benefits that adapting to new ideas brings.

RESOURCES OF THE MONTH:

There are far too many new technologies to review even a partial list for this writing. We are using GPS satellite location technology in so many ways like spraying liquids and spreading granular materials, tracking traffic patterns on a golf course and grading newly constructed ball fields. I have seen robotic stripers and mowers. There are even smart, inflatable field cover systems. We have apps of all kinds that can help us identify pests and estimate percent ground cover. The list goes on, but here are two examples that I know of that would qualify (to me) as true AI in sports field management. I’m sure there are others I am missing, so please let me know of any others and I will bring up in a future blog.

The Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL have been using an on-field, reportedly self-learning system of sensors as part of an overall smart stadium system. You can read about it here.

Field Turf has introduced its Genius field monitoring system. “This game-changing technology is designed to maximize the longevity, playability and safety of your sports field.”

END QUOTE:

“The pace of progress in artificial intelligence (I’m not referring to narrow AI) is incredibly fast. Unless you have direct exposure to groups like Deepmind, you have no idea how fast—it is growing at a pace close to exponential. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe. 10 years at most.” —Elon Musk wrote in a comment on Edge.org