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back to article Rise of the Machines: Robot challenges top German player at ping-pong

Everyone knows that the robots can already beat the best the human race can offer at chess, Jeopardy, probably global thermonuclear war etc. But for games of agility, until now the human athlete has in general retained his or her superiority. But that's set to change, as a powerful German robot reckons it can take on a former …

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Gimp

Woooaaahhh

How many of you went wooooaaahhhh when Agilus started rolling the ball around the edge of the bat.

Amazing engineering, mechanical and software : a little worrying all the same, did I just see John Conner waiting for a bus....

Question : Is there any valid reason for building robots to perform tasks in tha same manner that a human being would perform them ? ( Other than the obvious serviable slave)

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Re: Woooaaahhh

The obvious serviable slave isn't reason enough?

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Very cool but it seems that the main task would be that of sensors and software, no?

A robot performing a task with agility, speed and (of course) precision is one thing but a robot being able to react to real world situations on-the-fly is surely the real trick here and if they can pull that off then I will be suitably impressed.

All the robot itself has to be capable of is to move the paddle from some defined neutral range of positions to any calculated return position in less than the time it takes for the ball to reach that position. From there, it's down to the sensors to locate and track the ball and the software to calculate the trajectory and then plot a return shot.

None of that is likely to be easy but again, it's really a software/sensor achievement right?

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Bronze badge

None of that is likely to be easy but again, it's really a software/sensor achievement right?

That's a big part of it, yes. But even when you know where each part of the robot is in space (itself no mean feat), getting those parts to move towards precisely the desired destination in exactly the desired moment would be hopeless if the machinery itself isn't very accurate. So beyond the software trickery, there is certainly a fair amount of engineering might involved.

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Not to mention that table tennis involves a considerable bit more than just placing your bat in the right place in time to intercept the incoming ball. The addition, and removal, of spin is pretty important, as is being able to stretch to the net and extremes of the arena.

I will be truly amazing if it can pull this off - don't miss the follow up El Reg - I wanna see this :)

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I see the point about moving to precisely the desired location but that is one of the strengths of such robotic arms - the machinery is very accurate.

Even 'cheap' 6-axis robots have repeatability measured in fractions of a millimetre. Granted, that precision is not independent of speed and acceleration so of course the faster the arm moves, the harder it is to achieve the desired precision but one might argue that an error margin of a centimetre or so would be within the acceptable range for such a purpose as table tennis. Given the base KR AGILUS model has a repeatability of 0.03mm, that 1cm is around 3000x more lax. Presumably this would allow the speed and acceleration to be increased by sacrificing some of the unnecessary precision.

The second part of your point, which is getting the manipulator (holding a paddle) to the calculated point exactly at the desired moment I see as slightly more of an issue. That said, the 'wrist' articulation should have enough torque and acceleration to effect a suitable shot from quite close range. That means that there is no need for all the joints to work in tandem for the hit and so the arm can be positioned ahead of time and simply the manipulator moved at the correct moment.

So, again, we come back to the sensors and software. From the above, the sensors and software will then need to ascertain the ball location, vector, speed and rotation and then calculate the end position, accounting for ball spin, drop and bounce.

Again, no small feat but one would argue that they must have this sussed because it's a non-starter otherwise. A robot is only as good as its software so if the goal is to play table tennis, calculating ball trajectory is a roll-a-six-to-start.

The next step is the part that interests me - how it determines the return shot. The programming could calculate all return trajectories possible from the end position, select the best one and then calculate the position the manipulator needs to be in to hit that shot. Alternately, it could calculate the quickest position to get into that will intercept the ball and then work out the range of available shots from there, which would be a subset of the full range above, given the arm/paddle position has already been chosen.

How it decides which of all those possible shots is the 'best' is another question! I will be interested to see if there are sensors to track the player's position (and, ideally, direction they are moving in) and if the software uses that to select the best shot, playing to the left if the opposing player is moving to the right, etc...

The way I see it, the engineering challenge is speed and acceleration, not precision and the software challenge is shot selection. It will be interesting from both points of view!

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Terminator

Brains beat brawls

Strangely enough, every time a robot one-ups a human I don't feel particularly humiliated myself. If anything I feel vindicated: the bleep-bloop machines of my childhood matured and are now taking over the world, just like we knew they would. Take that PE teacher pets of the world!

Now can we get that upload stuff working?

http://www.tgsa-comic.com/view.php?page=2008-04-02

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Brains beat brawls

I just want one invention: the ability to genetically identify people who are inclined to add beeping to machines so we can strangle them at birth. Class example: a Bosch washing machine with a timer ability so it can benefit from electricity night tariffs. Which beeps when it is ready. And keeps beeping until it is manually turned off. Ditto for most microwaves. Pizza makers. Ovens, Computers in movies.

It's become a fairly major purchase question: "Does it beep at any given point, start, end or randomly in between?" If yes, no sale unless it can be disabled on the device or unless I can figure out how to nuke the infernal beeping device without voiding the warranty. The only devices I tolerate this from are for children - there is has a function, and they have an off switch.

I wish anyone who foists this beeping upon others a week long stay sleep deprived in a small room filled with lots of device beeping at random, 24/7. If not, may they experience extreme diarrhoea - combined with a persistent cough.

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Re: Brains beat brawls

> The only devices I tolerate this from are for children - there is has a function, and they have an off switch.

My children have been gifted toys that appear to have an on/off switch, but on closer inspection that switch is revealed to be an on/demo switch.

'Demo mode' *can* mean, "I am going to bleep constantly until it's time for you to spend more of your hard-earned on batteries." That makes it an 'on/even more on' switch...

That is clearly evil, but not as evil as when it's 'On mode' that signifies 'incessant' and 'Demo mode' means the device randomly - or, through use of sensors, pseudo-randomly - makes its irritating array of noises. Annoying during the day, eerie through the night and (in the case of a toy police car I *told* the Mrs not to pack) utterly terrifying when driving through the backwoods on a country road in the pitch black.

They get binned as soon as the sprogs fail to notice when it's been locked in the outhouse for two days. Can't do the usual charity shop donation in good conscience....

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Re: Brains beat brawls

http://www.pandurohobby.nl/Catalogue/10-Jewellery-Accessories/1080/108010/1/512440-Wire-cutters-easygrip

SNIP!

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Silver badge

Some tricks up his sleeve?!

Timo Boll should win this one using street smarts. An orange T-Shirt might work wonders against the robot eyes. If there are multiple cameras involved, he should make sure to shake out his very very dusty clothes before the match. Oh, does that robot wear rule-conforming shoes? And I didn't see it serving from an open hand.

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Re: Some tricks up his sleeve?!

You might be on to something there nevertheless. Back when Kasparov chickened out lost to Deep Blue, it was said that much of Kasparov's success as a chessmaster was due to his ability to employ tactics that threw his opponents off. Not only was the remorseless machine immune to such mind tricks, it would sometimes pull off its own baffling yet effective exploits.

So yeah, this match could definitely prove interesting.

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Re: Some tricks up his sleeve?!

I'd show up in a polkadot shirt.

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Re: Some tricks up his sleeve?!

"I'd show up in a polkadot shirt."

Nah, Get one of those narrow striped shirts that 'strobe' in a camera.

That'd probably throw the 'bot into a tizzy.

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Trollface

Smart

Is it worth putting this much effort into getting a robot to do something people don't need to do anyway? And would it be as much fun if the whole top ten consisted of charmless robots?

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Re: Smart

Of course sports wouldn't be half as fun without human contenders to suffer horrible injuries, go into drugs in a disastrous attempt to stave off the effects of aging, protagonize acrimonious divorces, or generally make a huge mess out of their own lives. KUKA's objective is not to win the competition per se, but to demonstrate how skillful their robots are – a robot that can match the level of eye-hand coordination of a professional table tennis player can be employed in many scenarios where swift and precise motion is required.

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Shouldn't need to be said, but...

...yes, it will have been costed up and deemed to be worth it. Publicity for a fast accurate robotic system is probably hard to come by, and this will capture imaginations around the world. The company doesn't sponsor a table-tennis player in order to build karma; they've had this in mind for a long time. And of course their aim isn't to build a table-tennis player for competition. As someone pointed out above, several of the rules of the sport pertain to humans, so robots aren't eligible.

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Holmes

Re: Smart

Is it worth putting this much effort into getting a robot to do something people don't need to do anyway?

Hmm. Let me see. A robot that can react really quickly to projectiles coming towards it, and send projectiles of it's own against the enemy.

No, no, surely no-one will think of any use for that sort of thing.

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Gold badge
Thumb Up

Man and machine in perfect dis-harmony

BTW Back in the day robot ping pong was a major AI challenge.

IIRC one system had something like 5 Sun workstations running a bespoke bot with real time image processing and motion planning software.

The story here is barely possible AI lab research programme --> Turnkey hardware package.

Who will use it? Well someone who needs faster motion than existing bots but without the full speed of custom hard automation, like the machines that populate PCB's for example.

Impressive.

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Bronze badge

Re: Man and machine in perfect dis-harmony

I did a degree in AI in the 90s and my professor shared a cute story with us about Marvin Minski going to view his colleagues table tennis playing robot. The claim is that when Minski walked into the lab, the robot immediately started doing it's best to smack him on his shiny, bald noggin.

I have no idea if there's any truth in it, but it still makes me happy.

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Bronze badge

Strategies

Given that the machine should have perfect control of its motions, and access to really fast calculation of trajectories, as well as great power, I wonder if it's smart enough to work out that it can force a human back from the table with fast powerful strokes and then defeat him with the most delicate of drop shots. Could be a short match!

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Re: Strategies

I wonder if it's psychotic enough to work out it can CRUSH HIM IN ITS REMORSELESS METAL GRIP!!!

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Happy

Surely

Viff Vaff (with apologies to Bovis)

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Boffin

Drop shot

Check the length of the robot arm and serve it a well-placed drop shot. And I hope they programmed the robot to absorb extremely hard shots or it will see some fly over the table :)

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Anonymous Coward

missing alliteration (or is at assonance?)

Bish boche bash, surely?

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Anonymous Coward

I wonder how difficult this actually is - or really, what the most difficult part is? Is the spatial/temporal positioning of the servo system the limiting factor, or the imaging? And also what kind of camera systems they're using - there's a huge difference in difficulty if you try to do it from the same footprint as a person vs. having fifty cameras all over. Obviously they're not doing the former but hard to know what the rest of the setup is like.

It's a fascinating problem, and clearly nontrivial, but it'd be nice if there was a bit more than a nicely cut trailer to flesh it out...

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How would it handle 'Diabolus' ....?

http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/02/16

That is all ...

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Re: How would it handle 'Diabolus' ....?

Anybot wearing pink Lacoste deserves to get thrashed.

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Well that was disappointing, I was expecting a video of some robot whoop ass but its just a teaser.

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Happy

Coming off the Olympics,

I'd like to see a robot do the grand slalom, or the halfpipe.

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Coat

Nominative determinism

Ping Pong Boll

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Next --

Make the robot play with nunchucks, like "Bruce Lee" in this video

* fake footage created for a Nokia advert, but moderately impressive

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