We All Need to Calm Down About This USA vs Japan Robot Duel

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Okay, internet. Everyone just needs to simmer down, now. I know we’re all excited about the supposedly looming international giant robot duel between America and Japan. I am too. But! We should also be wary. Patient. Because it miiiight not be as cool as we think.

Here’s the genesis of the chrome-shredding showdown that’s hopefully, actually, maybe happening: US-based MegaBots and Japan-based Suidobashi Heavy Industries both have huge human-piloted robots. MegaBot Mark II and Kuratas, respectively. The former is 15 feet tall and 5,443 kilos; the other, 13 feet tall and 3,629 kilos.

Last week, MegaBots challenged Suidobashi Heavy to a duel. Boom! What happened next? This week, Suidobashi accepted. The internet goes wild! International media outlets, subreddits, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts flood with hype.

And yet, this fight, which will apparently happen a year from now, might just be only that: hype.

The battle itself isn’t going to be anything out of a big-budget Hollywood popcorn flick. But, even so, it’s a cyberpunk’s dream come true, and nowadays, fighting mechas are far from science fiction.

“A robot duel is definitely feasible, and I expect it to be visually appealing,” says Clark Haynes, a commercialisation specialist at the Robotics Institute’s National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University. He was also the software lead for the NREC team that finished third in last month’s DARPA Robotics Challenge.

However? “It may end up anticlimactic, however, as I suspect one robot will incapacitate the other within seconds,” he continues. “Robots tend to be extremely complex electromechanical systems, and single points of failure can make a robot inoperable very quickly.”

In other words, if one robot hits the other one’s weak spot in the first 60 seconds of the match, it’s over. Thanks for coming out, folks! Says Haynes: “I suspect the robot developers will spend their ‘one year’ of preparation trying to protect all of those weak spots.”

Note: quotes around “one year” are his. I, too, am leery of what the actual timetable will end up being. Will everyone still be pumped about this in two, three years?

There’s also the fact that this fight could be kind of, well, boring. Or at least, not what one would call “fast-paced.”

“With a robot this large, it will definitely be slower than you might expect,” Haynes predicts. The good news? “But what it lacks in speed, it will make up in strength, and it should be able to exert a huge amount of crushing force on the other.” BAM! Bone-crushing ‘bots, all day.

It’s not that I don’t want this to happen. I definitely want it to happen. I’m just saying, the coolness, and reality, of this event is contingent upon many things. Technology, time, money, logistics.

So, what do I suggest? MegaBots and Suidobashi need to stay on track, follow through, and actually make this duel happen. They should keep all these new fans updated every step of the way, kind of like a successful Kickstarter campaign should. Seriously, is there a newsletter I can subscribe to? What will the rules be and who will decide them? Where will it take place and how much will it cost? Will both teams be actively improving their robots leading up to the duel?

But hey! If giant Pacific Rim-style death matches are what get people interested in robots, I shouldn’t be complaining. Haynes agrees.

“Robots in pop culture set the bar very high compared to what is possible with today’s technology,” he says. “It’s the hope, of course, that competitions like this one will keep the public engaged and help build excitement about the many cool things that robots can do, including entertain us.”

And so, I remain cautiously excited. As long as this doesn’t end up being vapourware, I’ll be the first one streaming it, popcorn in hand, big stupid grin on my face.