IS anyone else cowering in a purgatorial corner waiting for the Hollywood writers’ strikes to catch up with their diet of mind-numbing bingeworthy offerings on Netflix? The issue at the heart of the mass walkouts in California surrounding AI’s appropriation of the creative arts, a field traditionally reserved for us humans, has come home to roost in Caledonia this week, with writers such as Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre telling The Herald that they support the global outcry of the unauthorised use of their work to train AI systems.

The mind boggles at what other Scottish peculiarities than crime fiction ChatGPT is trying to master. Perish the thought. If you found Mel Gibson’s transatlantic twang in Braveheart tough to swallow, imagine a Netflix special in which the algorithm confused Billy Connolly the comedian with the actor, and what emerged was an hour-and-a-half-long stand-up routine where the Big Yin in John Brown garb stoically attempts to woo Queen Victoria through a series of gags delivered in a cross between his peculiarly Partick parlance and a sprinkling of Stephen Hawking’s voice machine.

But what about the myriad problems that could be solved by a machine that knows everything? In Scotland, nothing could be more in need of the magic-wand treatment than refereeing football matches.

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The Herald: Referee Willie CollumReferee Willie Collum (Image: SNS)

For balance, I have been considering letting out this column space to some bot or other, so I set them a task in the spirit of digital appropriation of the creative arts: to write the stage directions for a Scottish football match...

Ibrox Stadium. It’s September. The stadium is full of Rangers supporters. We can hear crowd noise in the background.

Defender enters upstage right. He is a young man in his 20s. He’s in possession of the football but is trying to shield it from attacker. There is a coming-together, defender falls to ground, and attacker takes the ball and Rangers score.

I know, I know: so original. As recently as Wednesday night this same scene played out on the Ibrox stage as Rangers took the lead against Livingston in their Viaplay Cup quarter-final through Abdallah Sima. But wasn’t this scene vaguely familiar? Substitute Gustaf Lagerbielke for “defender” and Cyriel Dessers for “attacker” and you get the picture. That disallowed goal scored by Kemar Roofe in the first Premiership derby of this season was subjected to a VAR check, and a foul in the challenge between Dessers and Lagerbielke was spotted. The referee was alerted and invited to check his decision on his pitchside monitor, and the rest is history.

So, what happened on Wednesday night when Sima challenged Livingston’s Jamie Brandon with an outstretched arm to the back? How did VAR miss the foul? How did referee Willie Collum in real time, for that matter? Or either of his assistants on the touchlines?

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The Herald: Abdallah Sima goes in on Jamie BrandonAbdallah Sima goes in on Jamie Brandon (Image: Web)

A clearer and more obvious foul would be hard to come by. But don’t just take my word for it: contrast the thunderous jubilation in the stands when Roofe fired past Joe Hart to the half-hearted, here-we-go-again ripple of applause from the home fans who were practically making the “go-to-pitchside-monitor” gesture themselves. But no such motion was performed by referee Willie Collum, despite his propensity for the theatrics of his role and willingness to take centre stage.

Another little quirk of humanity is that we can also be easily influenced. Did Rangers’ demand to the Scottish FA for answers surrounding the derby decision influence Collum and his assistants at Ibrox in midweek? How else can you explain the reluctance to review such an obvious error in virtually the same setting?   

There was much made of the decision to pull back Dessers’ trip on Lagerbielke in the aftermath of Celtic’s 1-0 win over their city rivals at the beginning of the month, but the reality is those inside Clydesdale House got the decision right and executed their duty within the current rules of the system. But should VAR be expected to pick out errors on this micro scale?

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The Herald: Gustaf Lagerbielke remonstrates with referee Don RobertsonGustaf Lagerbielke remonstrates with referee Don Robertson (Image: SNS)

The bug in that machine is in the pursuit of objective perfection within the subjective discipline of officiating football matches. Referees, officials, players, managers, supporters (even journalists) are not perfect. And consensus is almost impossible to find even on supposedly black-and-white rules. Debate, of course, is not only a part of football, but is one of the most interesting things about it. There are still those who disagree that there was a foul by Dessers in the build-up to Rangers’ disallowed goal against Celtic (there are probably fewer who believe Sima did nothing wrong against Livi). Thus, using VAR to come down on contentious decisions will inevitably lead to outrage from one side. And in the instance of Wednesday night’s decision, the knock-on of that sort of reaction can be to second-guess future decisions. It’s human nature.

The oft-heard cry from those who feel wronged by football officials is “we just want consistency”. But we should be careful what we wish for, at least in terms of the levels of consistency we seek. Clear and obvious works as a benchmark as it removes the implausibility of seeking a perfect system. If we want VAR to work for the benefit of Scottish football, we need to give up this idea that it can be a panacea for human error.

Picking apart the minutiae of every action which occurs on a football pitch at any one time between 22 players over the course of 90 minutes would require the kind of supercomputer that would barely fit inside the Clydesdale House hub. If you want to watch football matches played in this manner, all you have to do is boot up a PS5 or Xbox console, load the latest iteration of the EA Sports franchise, set it to computer v computer on 90 minutes and marvel at the life-like automatons’ every action, decision, cross, pass, tackle, shot and, most importantly, refereeing decision being made by a computer. Good luck making it to half time.

Humans, meanwhile, are very good at making mistakes, and so long as humans remain in charge of implementing VAR, mistakes will continue to be made. VAR can help to eradicate the most egregious of these, of course, but I’m with those striking writers (even if I end up having to watch another loop of Seinfeld in the absence of anything new to the platform). Who wants to watch a game of football – or a play, or a movie, or a concert – where technology rather than human endeavour writes the script? That would be the worst mistake of all.