Watson v. Ken Jennings. Deep Blue v. Kasparov. Like those man against machine battles, the KUKA robot v. Timo Boll match for ping pong supremacy could have been a referendum on how far the robots have come. Instead, the faux-"competition" managed to thoroughly disappoint.
"The Duel," as the match's teaser video billed it, featured the German Boll, a former top-ranked table tennis star, against the orange KR Agulis machine from KUKA, a German robotics company. That video in February created significant hype for the human-robot showdown. "We haven't been this excited to watch a ping pong match since Forest Gump versus China," SF Weekly wrote. "I Can't Wait to See This Robot Vs. Human Ping Pong Match," Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes' added. Would table tennis resist our soon-to-be robot overlords?
The full video of the battle was released last night, and man, was it a disappointment. From the get-go, it's clear that this won't be a real competition, but a commercial for the company. There's dramatic music, quick-cut scenes, and obvious editing within points. Boll is dramatically acting like he can't keep up with the robot, and badly at that.
Agulis and Boll go back and forth for a while until Boll finds his resolve and "wins," but the competition was nothing of the sort. This diving shot from Boll (right) in super slow-mo is a great example. It looks really cool! It's also totally unnecessary and would never happen in a real match. Boll could easily have stood in the middle of the table and smoked KUKA. Instead, he resorted to flashy dives and over-the-top stumbles to make the match seem competitive. Boll "wins" in the end by a "11" to "9" "score," finishing with a dramatic spike that he could have done every single round with ease.
From a technical standpoint, the robot is incredibly impressive. It can actually autonomously track and hit the ball. Awesome! That might be able to beat your buddy in a basement, but it can't touch a talent like Boll. Given the high expectations for a real match, the letdown was palpable. "A match like this could've been an intriguing window into future questions of sportsmanship and competitive entertainment;" The Verge writes, "as it is, it's nothing more than a glorified commercial." SB Nation was similarly distraught. "I feel like a dingus for ever getting my hopes up," Seth Rosenthal writes.
We are all disappointed KUKA robots in need of some comfort today.