Robot sport = Sporting robots are still slow. But their inventors are making rapid strides

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Bob O'Dyne

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Jul 23, 2012, 11:12:07 AM7/23/12
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The following article is from this week's issue of *The Economist*. It
reads like the treatment for a new Futurama movie--even down to the
last sentence: "For now their machines have more brains than
brawn-though at least they have no penchant for embarrassing partying
when the games are over." The Economist must be unfamiliar with
Bender.

--
Ann's Little Brother Bob

Robot sport
Heavy hitters
Sporting robots are still slow. But their inventors are making rapid
strides
http://www.economist.com/node/21559391

ONLY a few of the many thousands who applied to carry Britain's
Olympic torch in the relay that finishes on July 27th made the final
selection. But one application (albeit unsuccessful) stood out. James
Law, a computer scientist at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales,
nominated iCub, his metre-high humanoid robot.

Competition to build athletic machines is intensifying as greater
processing power makes them nimbler and handier. Disembodied arms at
the University of Tokyo pitch baseballs, and bat them back, with
uncanny accuracy. Engineers in Munich have built a pool-playing
automaton that can pot five balls in a row. Their counterparts at
Zhejiang University in China boast a pair of humanoid table-tennis
players. (They can rally with a human for 145 strokes, and with each
other for about 180.)

Sporting robots delight schoolchildren and excite students, says Peter
Stone, an academic in Austin, Texas, who helps to organise the
RoboCup-an annual competition for robot footballers. But they also
spur innovation. The same software that helps miniature robots form
sports teams could co-ordinate larger rescue robots in a disaster
zone. Games that require robots to take humanoid form spur research
into machines that might one day care for the elderly or run errands
for the infirm.

Some sporting robots have more immediate practical uses. Robotic arms
that hit perfect drives help golfing firms produce ever-better clubs.
A martial-arts robot at Loughborough University batters prototype
protective sports gear. The United States Bowling Congress uses a
machine named E.A.R.L. to measure whether ten-pin facilities are up to
scratch. These appliances are valued for their consistency, but
uncanny precision is a disadvantage in a real game. E.A.R.L. gets less
precise over ten frames (its ball wears out the surface of the lane by
always hitting the same spot).

Even "ageing amateurs" can defeat today's batch of footballing
automatons, admits Mr Stone. But cleverer breeds of robot will learn
from watching humans, thinks Subramanian Ramamoorthy at the University
of Edinburgh. New technologies are generating ever more data about
flesh-and-blood sportsmen-much of which might be fed into machines.
Basketballs made by 94Fifty, an American start-up, are packed with
sensors which measure how accurately players pass, dribble and shoot.
Cameras owned by SportVU, an Israeli firm, identify and monitor
players on sports fields. The company uses missile-tracking software
to crunch the huge array of statistics that their moves provide.

Such omniscience could make artificial athletes unbeatable-if their
hardware were up to scratch. But without wheels, most automatons are
still painfully slow. The tiny athletes who took part in the world's
first robot marathon, in Osaka, took more than two days to finish the
course. Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man, reaches 28 miles (44km)
per hour; but the fastest robot on legs, a doglike creature built by
Boston Dynamics, runs at only around 18mph. The swiftest two-legged
machines, like one built by scientists at the University of Michigan,
now travel at about 7mph. That is about the speed of a jogging human.

iCub's successors may gain revenge eventually: entrants in the RoboCup
hope their teams could beat humans by 2050. For now their machines
have more brains than brawn-though at least they have no penchant for
embarrassing partying when the games are over.

--
Ann's Little Brother Bob
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