When you picture a robot moving around, you likely don’t think about athletic prowess and quick thinking. You likely picture a rock-em sock-em robot lifting one uncoordinated leg at a time, and then falling over without a clear center of gravity.
But today’s robots are more adroit than you might think. They even help top athletes perform — and some play sports themselves.
Keep reading to learn how robots are transforming sports and helping human athletes do better on the field.
Robot Soccer Players Take the Field
The RoboCup federation was created with the purpose of promoting robotics and AI research. Soccer is played around the world, so the development of soccer-playing robots appeals to a wide variety of audiences. The goal: By 2050, a team of autonomous humanoid robots will beat human World Cup champions in a game that follows FIFA’s standards.
Reaching FIFA level requires developers who can focus on the mechanics of movement (making robot players run, kick, and block) as well as the AI programmers who can “teach” robots the mechanics of the game and how to act on instinct and to strategize. These robots need to communicate and form teams.
“Collectively, they form a team that’s teaching roboticists to build—dare I say it—synergistic machines that cooperate to form something bigger than the sum of their individual teammates,” Matt Simon at Wired writes. “And that’s essential if humanity is going to create a robotic society that doesn’t descend into chaos.”
Not everyone is as enamored by these robots as Simon is. Science writer Nick Thieme says these robots have a long way to go before anyone is going to care about them or be impressed by their skills.
“They lack what makes the game beautiful,” he writes.“ If you’re betting on a robot soccer team, you’d better hope that your keeper is in the right place at the right time, because they almost never dive toward an incoming ball.”
While seeing robots take on World Cup champions in the future might be interesting, Thieme encourages readers to focus on other RoboCup competitions that take place off the field. These rescue and industrial events showcase skills that are dangerous or difficult for humans to accomplish and prove how far robots have come in goal-oriented tasks — not how close to becoming Lionel Messi they are.
Robots Protect American Football Players
In American football, coaches, players, and parents are increasingly concerned about safety. Brighter Brains Institute director Hank Pellissier even pitched replacing human NFL players with robot counterparts.
“Teams of robots, shaped like human gridiron heroes, wearing the same colors, performing the same plays–blocking, tackling, pass-catching, running, punting, intercepting,” he writes. “Let’s create robots that can do everything Pro Bowlers can do, without mental incapacitation as a consequence.”
This argument is part of the bigger picture related to human safety on the field, a discussion coaches are having at all levels of the game.
In 2010, Dartmouth College coach Buddy Teevens instituted a “no-tackle” policy where players only tackle each other on game day, and never in practice. This was to lessen the risk of unnecessary injuries during practice. Instead of tackling teammates, players tackle virtual players.
Mobile virtual players replicate the motion and speed of human players, and are operated remotely. The size, weight and movement makes it feel like a player is actually tackling another human, rather than a robotic device. Players can improve their tackles without hurting their teammates.
Robot Umpires Could Make Baseball More Accurate
Over the past few years, Major League Baseball has taken steps to make the game faster to attract more audiences. Some have proposed replacing human umpires with technology for faster, more accurate results.
The concept of digital umpires is hotly contested. Ryan Davis at Sporting News says robots aren’t able to accurately call games, and may actually miss more calls than human umpires currently do. The strike zone is set from the batter’s knees to his elbows. It is adjusted for the batter, and experienced umpires understand what each human strike zone looks like.
Catchers also have a say in what that strike zone looks like, Oliver Staley at Quartz writes. Top catchers use a technique called pitch framing where they adjust their gloves to form the strike zone. The best, like San Francisco’s Buster Posey, “can save their team 27 runs more than the average catcher over the course of a season.”
While robots might be able to catch the big mistakes that send players screaming into umpires’ faces, they might actually get the closer calls wrong because each player and pitch is unique.
Interestingly, many players are pushing for an electronic strike zone, or other digital solutions to overcome umpire errors, Joe Giglio at NJ.com reports. Players get equally frustrated when an unfair call ends an inning or changes the pace of the game, and think a digital solution could provide more accurate results.
In the meantime, players and coaches are left with human umpires, much to the chagrin of Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs, who was ejected in August 2018 after telling an umpire he should be replaced with an electronic strike zone after unsuccessfully arguing a pitch.
Robots Could Also Play in the NBA
If you didn’t get enough humanoid robots playing soccer, check out the basketball players created by Toyota in Japan and shared by Bonnie Burton at CNET.
CUE is an AI humanoid robot trained to shoot baskets. The robot shoots from up to 12 feet away and can make 200,000 different shots with impressive accuracy.
“While CUE’s shooting range is remarkable, its defense skills on the court are sorely lacking,” Burton writes. “CUE stands on a platform connected by power cables, and can’t move freely around the court.” The bot might have mastered one element, but with the game consisting of so much more than that, humans have an impressive edge.
It’s not just the role of players that is safe for the moment. A few NBA stars have weighed in on the potential for robot referees one day, and aren’t too impressed with the idea. In an article for Inverse, Paige Leskin says NBA star Kevin Durant thinks that just because something’s possible doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done.
“For Durant, what the human refs don’t call is more important than what they do,” she writes. “He worries AI officials would call every little foul that players commit, showing none of the discretion their human counterparts do currently.”
Robotic Sensors Improve NHL Puck Tracking
Almost every sport is getting into the game of technological enhancements, and some forays have been more successful than others.
NHL teams are currently looking to use “smart puck” technology by 2019, Stephanie Mlot at Geek.com reports. This would allow coaches and owners to track movement on the ice at a rate of 200 times per second for a live dataset. The information would be sent to coaches on in-game tablets, and could also help with live broadcasts and sports betting.
This isn’t the first time that the NHL has toyed with sensors related to the puck.
Stephen Gross at The Morning Call remembers the infamous “glow puck” which glowed blue as it passed sensors across the rink. When the puck, imbedded with infrared transmitters, traveled more than 70 mph, it would glow red and look like a comet shooting across the rink.
“While my seven-year-old self loved it, the majority of viewers hated the enhancements put in place to help viewers track the puck,” Gross says. Still, it’s hard enough for players to see a tech-free puck, much less fans with untrained eyes. Today’s technology hopes to improve that.
Robots Enhance the Fan Experience
Professional sport is big business, and the focus is on the fan for many sports franchises.
Baseball and football go out of their way to create positive fan experiences — like repealing the vastly unpopular end-celebration ban a few seasons ago. Owners and stadium managers are investing in ways to make the game experience better and encourage more people to attend live events (instead of streaming games online).
The team at Satisfi Labs has partnered with venues and stadiums to address fan concerns. Their solutions address problems like bathroom wait lines, parking, and even mobile food ordering. No one wants to be that fan who misses the biggest play of the game because they were waiting in line to order a hot dog.
Snaptivity drives fan engagement with its app that uses cameras around the stadium to catch candid reactions from fans. The company believes the best photos come from the emotional reactions of a team scoring a goal or saving a shot. AI identifies the fan and sends them their best shots, with a branded overlay with results from the game. This creates a memento for fans so they can focus on the game but benefit from the technology.
Virtual reality is also working its way into sports and the fan experience. Advertising platform OmniVirt says broasting matches through virtual reality makes fans feel like they’re at the game watching it in person. VR can also foster a love for the game through video games, where fans can be the players themselves in an immersive experience.