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Table tennis champ to face robot in man vs. machine face-off


February 17, 2014

Table tennis player Timo Boll will face a Kuka robot opponent for a showdown on March 11

Table tennis player Timo Boll will face a Kuka robot opponent for a showdown on March 11

The human race has a growing history of pitting its best and brightest against mechanized challengers. It provides a benchmark of how far the robots we design have come, and, of course, a sense of how long it might be before they rise up and make us redundant. Carrying on that tradition, German robotics manufacturer Kuka has arranged a contest between one of its robots and highly regarded table tennis player Timo Boll.

Kuka vs. Boll will take place on March 11 to celebrate the opening of Kuka's first ever plant in Shanghai. The new 20,000 square-meter (215,300 sq ft) operation will produce Kuka's KR Quantec series of robots and its KRC4 universal controller.

The robot that Boll will face is a Kuka KR Agilus. There are a number of Agilus models available, but Kuka says the line is designed for working at fast speeds with high levels of precision – qualities that make it suited for table tennis. The most basic Agilus is a single-armed robot with five axes of movement and a maximum reach of 706.7 mm (27.8 in). It can be mounted on the ceiling or the floor, the latter being the position from which it will take on Boll.

Given that Boll is the most successful German table tennis player ever and is a former world number one, World Cup winner and European champion, the contest has all the makings of an exhilarating display of speed and accuracy. Which player is your tip for the win?

The video below is a teaser for the event.

Source: Kuka

Editor's note: The "match" has now taken place, and while it was always going to be a publicity stunt, we didn't expect it would be such a complete sham. The resulting promo video does very little to demonstrate the robot's speed or range of movement, and just about anyone who has ever played table tennis can see that it wouldn't be capable of returning even one of Boll's serves. Ahh well, we shouldn't have got our hopes up. In a slight nod to reality, the script does have Boll winning, but if this is the best they can do, one can only assume that a robot that can actually play table tennis is a long way off.

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds. All articles by Stu Robarts

Personally, I think the human champ will be at a disadvantage, not because KUKA is "better" or "faster," but because Timo Boll will be missing out on the subtle body language that makes his reactions possible.

"There is no such thing as a foolproof system. Someone will make a better fool, tomorrow." @LoneWolffe

Benji Roo

I doubt that the Kuka will make it anyway. The matter of inertia and the sensors are two important points which should not be underestimated from the technical site. Apart from that its not a new idea. Here is someone working at the same thing but with more probable description: http://ulfhoffmannroboter.wordpress.com/

Markus Schmidt

If the software and mechanical response are as quick as the table tennis game on Playstations- Sports champions,then Timo Boll will lose.

Peter Robinson Robinson
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