In A Ping Pong Match Between Robot And Man, The Marketing Team Wins
Last month, robotics manufacturing firm KUKA Robotics decided to celebrate the opening of its first plant in Shanghai with in a rather unusual fashion - it announced plans to host a table tennis match. Not just any match, either. They went for broke, and invited world ping pong champion Timo Boll to swing by their facility to face off with their Agilus robot - which they claimed was the fastest in the world. It was slated to be a match for the ages, a pitched showdown between man and machine; between conditioned professional athlete and cold, unfeeling mass of mechanics.
What we got instead was...well, it honestly feels more like a commercial than a contest. As you can plainly see from the YouTube video below, the battle boasts some Hollywood-level production values and a non-twist everybody saw coming, anyway. For the first minute or so of the video, Boll plays carelessly, dropping shots that he should easily return and placing his own within easy reach of Agilus.
In essence, he's making a series of mistakes even a novice would avoid, and flailing about in a downright theatrical fashion.
Things start looking pretty bad for Boll, as he's down 6-0 against the orange robot arm. Then, partway through the match, he has a Rocky Balboa-esque epiphany, complete with slow-motion cameras and bombastic music. Perhaps he'd forgotten that he's a world class professional athlete?
To make matters worse, it's clear the footage - which currently has almost two million views on YouTube - is heavily edited, with the camera cutting in and out of the in-progress match, seemingly completely at random. The only redeeming moment in the video is towards the end, when Boll successfully rallies with four arms simultaneously, proving that Agilus never really had a chance from the start.
What could have been an intriguing and interesting look into the future of robotics and competitive sports instead serves as little more than a three minute commercial for Kuka.
The thing that makes this so frustrating is that the match could have been so much more. Robotic athletes are nothing new, so there's honestly a precedent for a robot like Agilus actually being able to put up a decent fight against Boll - one devoid of ridiculous camera angles and randomly-angled shots. After all, if one bored mad scientist father can create an air hockey machine out of spare parts, you can't possibly believe that one of the world's biggest robotics firms is incapable of truly giving Boll a run for his money.
From where I stand, Kuka Robotics has dropped the ball in a huge way. This match, were it released in real-time, could have been an incredibly fascinating look at the gulf between man and machine, and a commentary on how far machines yet have to go before they can compete with human beings. Unfortunately, Kuka instead chose to turn the whole thing into a publicity stunt.
What this ultimately means is that, in a battle between man and machine, neither really emerged as the victor. That honor instead goes to Kuka's marketing division, who must be pleased as punch at all the exposure their video's getting. At this point, all we can really do is hope that someday, we see Boll - or someone like him - go toe to toe with a robot in an actual match, preferably without the Michael Bay-inspired camera work.