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We’re losing the man versus machine battle

Tobin Low Mar 12, 2014

It was supposed to be the next chapter in the struggle of man versus machine. In what sounded like the premise of a startup fever dream, KUKA, a German robotics company, pitted their ping pong playing robot against German champion Timo Boll. Would humankind reign victorious, or would KUKA’s machine crush the dreams of rec room wunderkinder everywhere?

Boll ended up winning…sort of.

It’s pretty clear from watching the final product – as well as this behind the scenes video – KUKA did in fact build a robot that could play ping pong, they just had no intention of actually testing its ability against a human. Instead, they produced a terminator-esque tribute to man’s ability to overcome the machine. Those anticipating the game were disappointed. Some called out the robot company for misleading advertising, while others called the match a “glorified commercial.”

Clearly, people were looking forward to seeing how someone at the top of their field would fare against a machine designed to be better than the best. It’s a tale as old as (computer) time. So how has humankind fared in the past when matched up against their robot foes? Let’s get this robocage match underway.

Chess is considered the ultimate game of strategy, so what better arena to test a battle of wits. The first reported instance of a computer defeating a human happened in 1956, when a program called MANIAC was able to best a novice player. Though the development of the technology would continue to be tested throughout the next couple of years, it was in 1997 that robot-human matches garnered mass attention in the pairing of World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov against IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue.

Spoiler alert: Kasparaov lost. Though the chess playing computer craze hit fever pitch in 1997, advancements in programming continue to be developed. In 2009, a chess program running on a mobile phone was able to reach the grandmaster level of chess at an international tournament in Spain. At least we have computers beat on sportsmanship

Robots – 1, Humans – 0

It only gets more depressing from here on out. Olympian Ussain Bolt holds the record for the fastest human being in the world, with an average running speed of 23.35 miles per hour. Robotics company Boston Dynamics, however, has him beat.

With a speed of 28.3 miles per hour, the Cheetah Robot edges out the world record holder. Even at his fastest, Bolt runs at 27.44 miles per hour, giving robots another win.

Robots – 2, Humans – 0

There’s no need to beat a dead horsebot. We all know how IBM’s Watson did in its two day appearance on Jeopardy. That didn’t stop Alex Trebec from getting in a dig at Watson’s expense in the first couple minutes of the supercomputer’s appearance on the tv quiz show. Watson got back at him by thoroughly defeating his human competitors by a margin of $23,213. That’s cold, Watson.

Robots – 3, Humans – 0

It’s pretty obvious that we’re losing the battle. Robots are getting more and more advanced, while the human body can only do so much. So why did people get so angry when KUKA tried to score one for humankind by rigging the match? At the end of the day, people don’t like to be lied to. That ping pong playing robot probably has us beat, fair and square.


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