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Why I Can’t Wait for Japan’s 2020 Robolympics

We may be on the verge of a robo-sports revolution.

This summer, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe floated the idea that, parallel to the Tokyo Olympics, his nation might try to host the world’s first Robot Olympics. The announcement set the hearts of every nerdling who grew up watching Battle Bots aflutter, with visions of mechanized slugfests dancing in their heads. But for many familiar with the general incompetence of most modern, commercial robots, the concept also raised some skeptical eyebrows.

These doubters may underestimate the Abe regime’s deep dedication to building its economic future around robotics and are probably unfamiliar with the progress made in mech sporting in Japan and abroad recently. These encouraging factors give a good amount of credence to the dreamers’ hopes for a world-first Robolympics that will put Battle Bots to shame and help inspire a bold, new future of robotic sport and industry.

“We want to make robots a major pillar of our economic growth strategy,” Abe said at the same event where he hinted at 2020’s Robolympics. “We would like to set up a council on making a robotic revolution a reality in order to aid Japan’s growth.” Abe added that he wants to see the nation’s robotics industry triple in size in the coming years.

Ripley was so cool.

Japan already has a very substantial and futuristic robotics industry. Around the same time Abe was making this pledge, Japanese manufactures were introducing the world to a prototype mind-controlled robo-suit (a la Aliens) and a humanoid robot that can supposedly understand human emotions. Beyond experimental products, Japanese elder care companies recently approached a Robot and Frank reality, marketing robotic hugging chairs shaped like humans to wrap their arms around and comfort the aging in their darkest moments. If we already have to reach for sci-fi parallels to describe Japanese projects today, imagine the potential of an industry many times its current size and several years down the road.

For about as long as Japan’s had an active robotics industry, it has also explored mech sports. Way back in 1990, in a bid to inspire its engineers to dream up new technical innovations, Fujisoft Inc. created robot sumo. A simple sport where robots try to push each other out of a ring, there are now well over a dozen tournaments and hundreds of robot wrestlers worldwide. The sport has gained so much attention that in December 2014, aficionados took it to Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kougikan, the nation’s premiere traditional human sumo stadium for the first International Robot Sumo Tournament, which attracted participants from nine other nations.

Beyond the simplicity of robot sumo, since the late 1990s, Japanese researchers have led the way in the RoboCup, an attempt to create autonomous, humanoid soccer teams capable of defeating World Cup winners by 2050. (Although the droids aren’t yet up to taking on Lionel Messi, Honda’s Asimo did manage to embarrass Obama recently.) Scientists are also hard at work on improving their baseball bots, teaching them to throw sliders and curve balls at high speeds. And as of October 2014, the nation even has robot cheerleaders capable of dancing in unison and forming various shapes to J-pop songs to cheer on their mechanical kin on the field.

The world has already launched a number of multi-event robot athletics competitions as well, paving the way for Japan’s Robolympics. The RoboGames combine robot sumo with other events for martial artist androids. Meanwhile, although not meant to be a spectator event, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects’ Robotics Challenge has become a spectacle for its annual displays of mechanized speed, strength, and agility. And although it does not involve autonomous robots, Switzerland has floated its own plans to create a Cybathlon in 2016, a six-event competition parallel to that year’s Olympics for athletes with robotic prosthetics to show their ability to exceed rather than replicate human athletic prowess. Next to this line-up, Abe’s plans sound less crazy and more like a logical progression.

Granted, in most of these competitions the robots still look a little stilted and sloppy. “To be honest,” Marcell Missura, controller of a RoboCup winning team, told reporters in 2012, “I think a three-year-old could win against any of the humanoid teams.” But the fact that these robots at least look like they’re playing sports rather than crashing about slowly and randomly is already a quantum leap and a mind-blowing show for most of us.

Murata's robotic cheerleaders

It’s also worth keeping in mind that most of these competitions involve home-built, individually-funded robots; the gap between what government-funded and garage-built robots can do is enormous. So if states got involved in an international competition like the Tokyo Robolympics (or even if we managed to create professional robotic sports leagues, as some entrepreneurs started trying to do last fall), the quality of the robotic athletes on the Olympic field would be eye candy closer to the opening of Big Hero 6 than the faltering of Battle Bots.

And as the spectacle of robosports captures the world’s minds and ambitions, it will hopefully beget innovations that we can drag back into practical world of industrial and service robots. That’s likely a big part of why Abe included this competition in his vision for a robotics-driven Japanese future—it has the potential to captivate, metastasize, and spur essential growth and development.

For the dreamers out there, this all amounts to a damn fine reason to go out and pre-book a Tokyo-bound ticket for 2020. Or better yet, just look into the possibility of uploading yourself into a robotic spectator—a mechanized seat filler made available in South Korea last summer onto which you can project your face, chants, and even commands to do the wave. It’d be an utterly apropos way to watch what promises to be a truly cool, first-ever Robolympics.

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