Whether it’s the World Cup, the Olympic Games, or the Tour de France, humans have pretty much nailed sport – the same can’t be said for our robotic friends.
Although AI is developing at an unprecedented rate, we’re still a long way from mechanised punch-ups like those seen in the 2011 film Real Steel (despite what the teams at Robot Combat League below will have you believe).
That said, there have been a few notable attempts in the history of robotics, with varying degrees of success, to better our athletic abilities, but let’s just say the gold medal is safe in our fleshy, human hands – for now…
Snooker – Hissing Sid
On live TV anything can happen, or more specifically, when the snooker-playing robot Hissing Sid made his debut on Tomorrow’s World in 1981, nothing happened. Given a simple red to win the game against presenter Kieran Prendiville, Hissing Sid got stage fright and refused to play the shot, and when it eventually did strike the cue ball, it hit the red ball too fine and missed the pot. The seemingly superhuman skills of Ronnie “the Rocket” O’Sullivan are to this day yet to be matched by robot snooker players.
Skiing/Ice Hockey – Jennifer
Jennifer Goes Cross-Country and Alpine Skiing (YouTube/Chris I-B)
At the 2018 Winter Olympics, Czech athlete Ester Ledecká made history by winning two gold medals. Not unusual you might say, but what made it special was that they were in two completely different disciplines – alpine skiing and snowboarding.
But as it turns out, Jennifer, a diminutive robot created by students at the University of Manitoba Autonomous Agents Laboratory, already beat her to it. Jennifer might not have won any medals, but she’s demonstrated her prowess at both cross-country skiing and ice hockey!
Although not designed specifically to compete in any robot sports, there is little doubt in our minds that the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot would score perfect 10s every time with such displays of balance and poise. It is definitely entering the realms of uncanny valley watching this super-advanced robot self-adjust itself after performing a backflip, so Simone Biles better watch her gymnastic steps.
The Japanese electronics company OMRON says its future vision for its FORPHEUS robot is “Improving the relationship between machines and humans through ping pong rallies”. A very noble goal, but is it a case of first ping pong and then the world (evil cackle)?!? Probably not, it’s more likely the company are just showing off how excellent their artificial intelligence is (as well as realising their inner Forrest Gump).
Need to perfect your swing? Seems like back in the 1930s they weren’t afraid to enlist the skills of a mechanical robot to help sharpen their backswing. Ok, it turns out this one isn’t actually a real robot, just a prop from the film Love in the Rough featuring actress Penny Singleton, so we don’t think Rory McIlroy has anything to worry about.
The sport of pugilism has a long and noble history – one that was put to shame by the 2013 TV series Robot Combat League. The show saw two “robots”, controlled by humans in exoskeletons, duke it out in gladiatorial combat in front of an audience baying for blood (or more specifically, hydraulic oil). Needless to say, it was no Robot Wars, and even a long-retired Mike Tyson would have no trouble outsmarting these lumbering brawlers.
Speaking of Robot Wars, it’s worth checking out Robo Sumo, which ditches human control and lets diminutive robots battle it out on dohyō to become some sort of mechanical Yokozuna. Like sumo, the goal is to force your opposition out of the ring, and this can be done by pushing, shoving, distracting or just moving out of the way of an oncoming opponent. It’s very fast, and great fun to watch, if only for the sometimes bizarre (and not entirely effective) tactics some of the robots employ.
Frankie Dettori might not be the tallest of athletes, but he towers over the robot riders that compete in Middle Eastern camel races. Camel racing dates back thousands of years, but were traditionally competed by boy jockeys as young as four years old, many of whom were bought and sold as slaves. Qatar and the UAE outlawed this in 2004, and since then robot jockeys have taken their place. That’s good for human rights, but can they do this…?
Swish! That’s the sound of the ball flying through the net when the Toyota-made CUE takes a shot – every… single… time… Scoring a two-pointer with each attempt probably doesn’t make for the most enthralling of matches, but at around 1.9m, it’s nowhere near the average height of an NBA superstar (well over two metres!), and needs to be wheeled into position every time it takes a shot from a different spot, so us humans might still have a chance.
What’s the biggest event in the sporting calendar? The RoboCup, of course! (We did mean robot sporting calendar). Held every year in different cities around the world, as many as 500 teams of robot footballers compete to push the boundaries of how AI can work with such a dynamic, real-time sport, as well as getting one over your rivals. The objective of the RoboCup is that “by the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup”. Cristiano Ronaldo must be quaking in his boots.
They think it’s all over…
Not a robot being a sportsman, but a sportsman doing the robot – thank you Peter Crouch for proving that even if the robot overlords do overtake humanity, we were always the real winners. Anything you can do, we can do better.
Alexander is the Online Editor at BBC Science Focus and is the one that keeps sciencefocus.com looking shipshape and Bristol fashion. He has been toying around with news, technology and science on internet for well over a decade, and sports a very fetching beard.