Video of robot table tennis match goes viral, draws criticism

By Robynn Garfield | Posted - Mar 13th, 2014 @ 4:06pm

AUGSBURG, Germany — A German robotics company has produced a machine it says can best even the most skilled of table tennis players, but not every one is convinced.

KUKA Robotics, headquartered in Augsburg, Germany, with offices around the world, is one of the “world’s leading robot manufacturers,” according to its website.

Recently, KUKA built what it says is “the fastest robot on earth.” The robot, named the KUKA KR Augilus, is a thin-bodied contraption with a long, extendable arm.

To demonstrate the agility and speed of Augilus, KUKA released a video of the robot squaring off in a table tennis match with the German table tennis champion, Timo Boll.

Boll is currently ranked No. 8 in the world’s ranking for table tennis, according to data from the International Table Tennis Federation. He has been competing professionally since 2006 and holds numerous awards for competitions in Germany and around the world.

The KUKA match pits man against machine and starts off with the robot scoring a point against Boll. Eventually, Boll is able to take the victory against Augilus with a score of 11 to 9.

The robot puts forth an impressive showing, but the video has garnered criticism since it was released March 10. Evan Ackerman with the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) published a review of KUKA’s tennis table match and said he is skeptical of the methods used to produce such a robot.

“I guess we just have to accept that the company was primarily interested in a marketing campaign,” Ackerman said, “not a real technological demonstration.”

Ackerman analyzed the video and said he raised an eyebrow over the lack of explanation for how the robot functioned.

“My problem with this is that Kuka could have done something amazing here,” he said. “They didn't have to have a robot that was able to score six points … on Timo Boll: they could have actually put some effort into just making a robot that could give him a little bit of a game.”

Whether or not the video can be authenticated has had little impact on its popularity. Since its release March 10, the match between Boll and Augilus has had more than 2 million views and has been featured on media outlets around the world.

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