Robot Olympics: more exciting than the human version?

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang showcased the East Asian nation’s robotics heritage by including robots in many areas of the event. Robots were in place at Incheon Airport, Seoul, to greet spectators and athletes. Roaming robotic guides holding oversized tablet computers assisted the lost in four languages. The Olympic torch was carried by a bipedal bot. And fish robots swam in supermarket aquariums.

Despite the unquestionable novelty of these bots a more surprising, and perhaps indicative, appearance was a mini-event taking place at the same time in Hoengseong County, a two-hour drive from PyeongChang: a robotic ski event with a USD10,000 prize.  Eight teams from universities, institutes and private companies sent their full metal skiers down a slalom run. The results were mixed, with near equal helpings of cuteness – a roboskier being deflected off the pole of a gate, turning 180, skiing backwards for a length, only to turn back in the right direction to complete the course; idiocy – such as roboskiers smacking into the course barriers, or into the middle of flags; and admiration for the successful skiers that despite being slow completed the course with clunky aplomb.  

The rise of the robot athletes

A company that didn’t attend the roboskiing event was Softbank-owned Boston Dynamics – one of a few companies producing robots that could conceivably already enter more advanced competitive robotics sporting events than that in Korea. Robotics aficionados may have seen footage released by the company of its robots performing physically and mechanically challenging stunts: Handle, a wheeled bipedal robot scooting around the company’s workshop, jumping over obstacles and backflipping off tables, or the recently released footage of bipedal humanoid robot Atlas, running free in the real world (or at least a field near the warehouse). The company also has other bots that feature biomimicry – Spot (dog) and Wildcat (cheetah). Another company that could compete with Boston Dynamics could be Agility Robotics, makers of a pair of robotic legs modelled on an ostrich’s.

These advances in the agility and manoeuvrability of robots are going to be crucial to creating superhuman athletes that spectators will want to watch in their own Olympics. In much the same way as some people enjoy watching cars pushed to their limits at pinnacle performance in Formula 1 or rally driving, a segment of the population will be interested in watching robots push the limits of their actuators, processors, batteries and AI. Admittedly this is probably a decade or so away but will undoubtedly come – think of the rise of e-gaming, drone racing and other technology-dependent sports. Build the tech, and they will come.

Superhuman sports‘men’

Positing a robot Olympics involves formulating what events would and would not be suitable for robots. Target shooting and archery would be out, as every robot would achieve perfect scores every time. These events which rely on the fallibility of human abilities would be near pointless. Instead, testing a robot’s potential weak points such as computer vision clarity, accuracy and speed, or human– machine cooperation could be more worthwhile.

Robots could also participate in novel events that humans would not be able to. Robots are not limited by the human form; as such robots could participate in sports such as aerial acrobatics or use senses that humans don’t have, such as sonar.

What’s more, the research effort that gets put into pushing Olympic robots to do ever better will reap tangible rewards in everyday robotics and AI. For example, pushing computer vision processing speeds to perform better at ping-pong could be generalised to high-speed drones and aircraft in crowded urban environments.

The robot Olympics could reach a scale equal to the Paralympics. This raises the possibilities of advances in robotics and cybernetics for disabled and ‘transhuman’ athletes of the future. Could this become another subevent, with AI enhanced- and robot-utilising athletes competitively demonstrating abilities beyond their able-bodied counterparts in the slow and boring, unenhanced Olympics? Only time will tell.

 

[Image licensed to Ingram Image]

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