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    What a Man vs. Machine Olympics Would Look Like

    Written by

    Jason Koebler

    Staff Writer

    Let the games begin. Image

    For some reason, humans are hell-bent on developing robots that can take us down in athletic competition. The dream of a machine competitor formidable enough to take on humans began long before the Mechanical Turk, that chess-playing robot of the 18th century (there was actually a small human inside) and continued past the hunched-over competitions of intrepid programmers that Andrew Bujalski riffs on in his oddball movie Computer Chess. Now, as so-called artificial intelligence continues to advance past the realms of chess and Jeopardy, the man vs. machine battle has also shifted from brains to brawn. 

    Though true man vs. machine sports competitions have been few and far between, robots are feverishly trying to claw their way to the winners circle in each of the summer Olympic sports. (Winter sports are another question entirely; machines remain woefully underrepresented in ski-jumping and figure skating.) But here's how the robots would stack up against humans if they could compete in the Olympics today. Spoiler alert: humans are not going home with all of the gold medals.


    In 2010, researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology designed a robot that was able to hit a bullseye "after just eight trials." Not gonna cut it against these guys, robot. This is also good news for those of you hoping human hunting doesn't become a favored pastime of self aware robots. Side note: Can we all agree that archery is the most underrated olympic spectator sport? Watching Brady Ellison celebrate hitting a bulls eye with his bros is like watching two frat guys dominate a beer pong table for the entire night. Weirdly mesmerizing.

    Advantage: MAN

    Track and Field

    If we're allowing four-legged robots into this thing, and we are, DARPA's Cheetah Robot can run 28.3 miles per hour on a treadmill, though it needs a bit help staying on the track. Usain Bolt can run roughly 27.4 miles per hour. Robots also don't get tired, so they've got us smoked on longer events. 

    Advantage: MACHINE


    Lots of basketball-playing robots (and robotic basketball-playing seals, for some reason) have been designed, and they can shoot better than Steph Curry, but last we checked, basketball is a team sport. We've also yet to develop a tall, fast basketballbot that dribbles and does that sort of thing. Human dominance continues here.

    Advantage: MAN


    Real Steel got us started on the idea of a robotic boxing league, SyFy's Robot Combat League made it a reality. Floyd Mayweather may be an incredible boxer, but he's got no chance against a machine that can feel no pain and literally has fists of steel.

    Advantage: MACHINE

    Canoeing / Swimming / Diving / Water Polo / Sailing / Rowing

    We're going to leave aquatic sports out of this competition, but in case you're wondering, last year, a robot "swam" from San Francisco to Australia. Even so, man gets one point here based on the fact that water polo playing robots are terrible, and we don't have canoe-operating or sailing robots yet.

    Advantage: MAN


    Japanese researchers have created a totally badass bicycling robot that can balance, steer, and pedal, but the miniature robot unfortunately has no access to the latest and greatest performance enhancing drugs (maybe he can be overclocked?), so he's going down.

    Advantage: MAN


    DARPA has a robotic horse that prances about like a possessed demon straight out of a Silent Hill game, but the rules state (I assume) that you have to actually RIDE the horse, you can't BE the horse. Point for man.

    Advantage: MAN



    We've got Jedi bots and very basic fencing robots, but they don't stand a chance against humans, yet.

    Advantage: MAN


    This robot talks shit, chips golf balls into washing machines, and utterly manhandles Rory McIlroy. It's time to let robots into Augusta. 

    Advantage: MACHINE


    Humans are still safe on the ice, but for the sake of keeping things interesting, let's take air hockey, a game in which humans and robots have actually competed. Then watch this and realize humans have no chance. 

    Advantage: MACHINE


    Watch this robot spin around a horizontal bar a million times, do a quadruple backflip, and stick the landing like it's nothing. This is arguably more inspiring than Keri Strug. 

    Advantage: MACHINE


    Rugby-playing robots are great at kicking the ball, and the French national rugby team uses a six-legged, superstrong bot to practice scrums, but scientists have yet to put it all together: Humans still lead here. That's also the prediction of New Zealand professor Ian Yeoman, who says that humans have another four decades or so of rugby dominance before robots take over.

    Advantage: MAN

    Image: Wikimedia


    You've heard about drones, right? Humans have no chance.

    Advantage: MACHINE


    Robot Taekwon V is a classic Korean animated film. But that's just fiction: Actual taekwondo-practicing robots haven't been developed yet.

    Advantage: MAN


    Toshiba developed a volleyball-playing robot way back in 1997, so we've been at work on this for a while. Unfortunately, 15 years later, bots haven't gotten their act together enough to form a full team, so Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings still take this competition.

    Advantage: MAN 


    Check out how cute this guy is.  

    But robots have been lifting weights humans could only dream of for years. No contest here.

    Advantage: MACHINE


    A robot took down a human in the world's first professional wrestling match back in 2009, even though we're pretty sure it didn't completely abide by all the rules. Since then, the robots have only gained ground 

    Advantage: MACHINE


    As far as I can tell, the first badminton playing robot was developed earlier this year, and it's pretty fast with the racquet, as long as you don't lay down a drop shot. I'd like to think the match-throwing Olympic badminton players are smart enough to not play into its hands. Man by a nose.

    Advantage: MAN


    The express goal of RoboCup is as follows: "By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, comply with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup." Moreso than any other Olympic sport, scientists are most interested in getting soccer playing robots ready to beat humans. Since being formed in 1997, robots have played soccer each and every year, and as you might expect, they're getting pretty good at it. 

    When a team of robots played a bunch of business-y dressed scientists in 2009, they got crushed (though the robots managed to score a goal). Whenever robots do manage to take on humans, let's hope it doesn't go to penalty kicks: Robots can now kick the ball 125 MPH, and you've got to watch Lionel Messi take on this grinning Japanese goaltender robot. Messi eventually nets one, but we're guessing he's one of only a couple players who stands a chance.

    Advantage: MAN (barely)


    Disney just developed a robot that can juggle and play catch with a human, but their ball-catching technology still leaves a lot to be desired.

    Advantage: MAN


    Science unfortunately hasn't been working on this one too hard. 

    Advantage: MAN

    Table Tennis

    We've got table tennis-playing robots--you can even buy them commercially. Now why hasn't anyone put them to the test against the best of the best? It's probably safe to say that humans still win this, but we've got to be getting close. Someone set up this match.

    Advantage: MAN


    Everyone check out this hilariously poorly-acted promotional video for Boomer the Tennis Robot, featuring 1993 French Open doubles champion Luke Jensen. Jensen says he won on a technicality. I'll take that a step further and say that because the robot doesn't run around the court, it loses hands down.  

    Advantage: MAN 


    Baseball playing robots are bad at hitting the ball and worse at fielding. They can throw the ball pretty fast, but a team of robots stands no chance, unless we're talking Super Baseball 2020, an amazing Genesis / Super Nintendo game of the early 90s. Please let baseball be like this by the end of the decade.

    Advantage: MAN



    Robots are obviously far off from playing a real game of football, but they can kick footballs. In 2010, then-49ers kicker Joe Nedney outclassed a place-kicking robot.

    Advantage: MAN


    Robots can crush humans at foosball players, as long as the "crazy mode" on this machine is on. The humans in this video have horrible technique, however, spinning like maniacs. That's not how you do it.

    Advantage: MACHINE


    MAN: 17

    MACHINE: 9

    So there you have it, roboathletes. You've made huge inroads in physical competitions such as wrestling, track, and weightlifting, but when it comes to dexterity, teamwork, and coordination, you've got a lot of work left to do. Try again in 2020, when surely the prophecies of Super Baseball 2020 will have come true and we'll be facing off in cyborg vs. true robot competitions.

    See more on man vs. machines:

    Artificial Intelligence on Motherboard

    What Some of Our Thoughtful Human Friends Think About Watson