Robot Olympics Planned for 2020 Powered by Japan’s ‘Robot Revolution’

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Japan likes robots. And while some Americans raised on a confusing sci-fi diet of Star Wars, Terminator, and iRobot are perhaps a little wary of advanced AI and robotics—Japan simply can’t wait for the “robot revolution.”

In a recent tour of Japanese robotics firms, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe declared his intention to create a government task force to study and propose strategies for tripling the size of Japan’s robotics industry to $24 billion.

And one more thing, Abe said, “In 2020, I would like to gather all of the world's robots and aim to hold an Olympics where they compete in technical skills.”

While mere mortals compete in the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo—in a stadium somewhere nearby, the world’s most advanced robots may go head to head in events showcasing their considerable prowess (hopefully by then, right?).


Team Case autonomous vehicle, DEXTER, at the DARPA Grand Challenge.

Holding an all-robot competition is by no means a new idea. A number of competitions exist. These range from fun (RoboCup and RoboGames) to serious (the DARPA Robotics Challenge). And recently, a Swiss group announced they’ll host a 2016 Olympics of robotically enhanced humans called Cybathlon.

Incentivized competitions can lead to advancements. The Ansari X PRIZE or DARPA Grand Challenge in autonomous cars, for example, whipped up excitement, real improvements, and the teams competing went on to form more permanent projects.

Now, we have Virgin Galactic and Google’s self-driving cars.

Currently, the highest profile competition in robotics is the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The contest, whose first round took place in December, incentivizes teams to engineer useful, autonomous bots to be used in disaster zones. Tasks include climbing ladders, driving cars, using tools, and navigating uneven terrain.

But the current landscape in robotics is a mixed bag. To the untrained eye, the DRC’s bots may appear slow, clumsy, and at odds with viral videos of robots like Boston Dynamics’ bipedal Petman (in fatigues, Petman looks like Terminator in beta).

Don’t get me wrong, these robots are amazing. But beyond performing simple tasks (for humans) like balancing and walking, robots aren’t very autonomous or skilled outside the lab. And power is a perennial challenge.

That said, while we’re still dreaming about owning C-3PO, it isn’t accurate to say that robotics hasn’t already had a significant impact. Industrial robots have been invading manufacturing plants for years, and as they’re becoming more and more intelligent and  aware of their environments, they’re also becoming more ubiquitous.

Foxconn, China’s controversial maker of the iPhone (and many other industrial products), makes no bones about its plans to replace as many human workers as it can in the coming years. The firm recently said 10,000 of their homegrown Foxbots are set to begin work soon, and in the future, 30,000 more will come online annually.

And even absent Abe’s proclamation, Japan is already a mecca for advanced robotics engineering and robot culture.

Big Japanese tech firms like Toshiba, Hitachi, and Toyota all work on robots. Indeed, the robot that dominated the DRC’s first round, SCHAFT, is the creation of a Japanese firm since acquired by Google. And did I mention Japanese plans to build a 60-foot moving Gundam robot (from the classic anime series Mobile Suit Gundam) by 2019?

The robotics revolution is already underway, and it's only going to accelerate from here.

While a 2020 Tokyo Robolympics (if it happens) might be a great incentive to innovate further, it might also showcase robots already capable of feats that seem only a distant possibility given today's level of capability. After all, self-driving cars went from failing to finish the DARPA course in 2004 to logging 140,000 miles on public roads by 2010.

Image Credit: Humanrobo/Wikimedia Commons

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 19 Responses

  • Jim Gravelyn August 2, 2014 on 1:28 pm

    I wonder if Al Gore will enter…

    • failcake Jim Gravelyn August 2, 2014 on 10:47 pm

      He could certainly win gold in lying and exaggerating and repeating nonsense endlessly. Though judging by his private jet I suppose he has enough gold. I wonder how well he would do in hockey. When I think of hockey sticks I definitely think of Mr. Gore.

  • Nolux August 3, 2014 on 10:31 am

    That’s interesting.
    A judgmental Christian, wwjd?
    I’m not Christian but i think Jesus and i would see eye to eye on most things.

  • Nolux August 3, 2014 on 10:54 am

    You should probably read first and comment after jim. I have distaste for judgmental short sighted religious types who don’t follow their own teachings – hypocrite

    • Jim Gravelyn Nolux August 3, 2014 on 12:54 pm

      And your distaste pertains to robots how?

      • Matthew Jim Gravelyn August 4, 2014 on 3:44 pm

        let me add i don’t mean sounds preachy/ make you a target jim lol. like i said we all have faults/shortcomings in communication/empathy. just making some points. i think you, and all people on this forum and everywhere fight mostly for good/to protect those they love etc. like they say it’s not news every time a plane lands. and as has been discussed (yet again) in a singularitarian book (wiki speaks of the term singularitarian as a kind of religion), “abundance” (this book really changed my life, it… like the “the singularity is near” is MY bible. proof of potentially infinite/unyielding compassion and possibility and wisdom in humanity)–in abundance, they talk about this “negativity bias” in the media that is a reflection of one of these biologically obsolete faults (faults like kinship/racism, or eating as much as possible/impulse to procreate as much as possible/kill prey to live etc). the obsolete fault i refer to here, negativity bias, is one we all share and it’s an evolutionary tendency to only remember the negative. it, like fight/flight(anger/fear), is only really useful in circumstances which we in civilized modern society no longer experience (minus being hit by a bus, being the victim of some lethal hate crime, or walking off a cliff. all realms which fear is still useful, but largely marginal in our every day experience).

        i feel like we can all agree that we don’t like to see hate/violence in the world. and that we are fortunate to exist in a time where we are increasingly/accelerating in a more liberated and intelligent and wealthy reality than ever, so as to solve these age old problems. generation of entitlement? perhaps. but why should it be a shame? our ancestors fought for aeons toiling and suffering and dying so that we could live in a better reality. we are on the verge of being able to liberate ourselves in every conceivable way and the world is about to become more beautiful and loving than any of us can possibly imagine. i really appreciate the freedom of discourse on this forum and seeing everyone evolve positively together (which is what i feel inevitably happens when we talk with each other about anything). i read an article within the past year that modern powerful AI intelligence is showing evidence that in argument, no new information is achieved.

        • Matthew Matthew August 4, 2014 on 3:56 pm

          here is the proof. we are becoming more tolerant/peaceful/healthy/liberated/longer living/wiser than ever. and it’s only beginning as we are on the knee of the curve. have you not noticed? monumental life altering, game changing revolutions in technology are happening faster and faster. we dont’ notice it anymore because the changes happen so often that we accept things change fast and don’t even think about it. I know I posted this link a thousand times but it’s filled with charts that prove the same positive trends that abundance talks about, with empirical statistical history. this video, like the book abundance, saved my life. I was in a miserable state of corrosive pessimism. and if one person clicks this link and updates their perspective with facts on how fortunate we are all to be alive right now and has a more optimistic outlook, than me spamming it yet again will have been worth it. :)

          • Matthew Matthew August 4, 2014 on 3:58 pm

            skip straight ahead to 5 minutes to skip straight to the uplifting facts. <3

          • Matthew Matthew August 4, 2014 on 11:30 pm

            sorry for double post here, no idea how that happened.

  • Nolux August 3, 2014 on 1:30 pm

    Not robots, just you.

  • Nolux August 3, 2014 on 2:20 pm

    Sorry Jim
    Ignore my comments please
    I realize I’m being a judgmental jerk.
    I apologize

  • Nelson Cabrera August 4, 2014 on 4:01 pm

    Great, not only are robots better than us at almost everything, now they are hotter looking too, FML.

  • astrobiology August 9, 2014 on 12:28 am

    Very nice post.. Thanks for sharing such informative post with us… Keep sharing so that I can read all latest news..

  • ร้านยา ห้าศูนย์เจ็ด ฟาร์มาซี February 8, 2015 on 2:21 am

    I rather like to see robots competing simple sports like table tennis or tennis.

    If I’m rich like Bill Gate , I will raise some funds to start this robot table tennis sport and challenge every big companies to join the competition.

    May be the winner will get 100 MillionUSD.

    The event will be held every 2 years.

  • Matthew August 4, 2014 on 2:03 pm

    funny how can project their own character faults onto others. why are YOU so eager to have an argument about God at every turn, Jim? you say fascist things, often in a contentious and insulting manner. usually regarding religion and climate change. neglecting that there are other religious affiliations, just general agnosticism/spirituality, or even atheism (using humanitarian/ecological science and fact as ethical guidelines). and in stark, contentious disdain toward science (a forum which this is for, remember). instead of finding creative and intelligent ways to understand how these things harmonize and exist in the same universe. I am spiritual too. it’s pretty magical that we exist of pure energy rotating at light speed around the god particle, a force which if turned off would have our matter blasting in a gigantic nuclear explosion of pure energy/light radiating in infinite direcitons at light speed. hurdling around yet another star 90 thousand miles away, through space at 60 thousand miles per hour. all existing because of one precise number–the cosmological constant–as if someone or something fine tuned us into existence. sounds like a good contemporary argument for creationism, no? imagine if the universe was digital, a matrix-liek reality unmistakeably real. and time was ACTUALLY compressed to 2000 years in a supercomputer simulation and that our ‘billions of years’ was just an illuion. don’t worry jim, you’ll meet your maker in this lifetime if you survive the next 30 years. doesn’t mean you have to be condescending and hateful. there are ways to share your insights in a way that is sensitive and harmonizing with your adversaries. and not harmful and hateful/fascist. the way you commented on the 120 years old maximum bible quote on that recent article about biomechanical immortality was great. pretty neutral/unbiased and hence more relatable and interesting. as we have proven with mirror neurons, arguments polarize opinions. it is best to debate/ponder things with people, not at them. as far as the rest of us, if we are so wise than we need to have patience with those who easily fall into human, biological, faults that we all succumb to at times, and help enlighten them. good luck! <3

  • Matthew Matthew August 4, 2014 on 3:53 pm

    here is the proof. we are becoming more tolerant/peaceful/healthy/liberated/longer living/wiser than ever. I know I posted this link a thousand times but it’s filled with charts that prove the same positive trends that abundance talks about, with empirical statistical history. this video, like the book abundance, saved my life. I was in a miserable state of corrosive pessimism. and if one person clicks this link and updates their perspective with facts on how fortunate we are all to be alive right now and has a more optimistic outlook, than me spamming it yet again will have been worth it. :)

  • Matthew August 4, 2014 on 11:29 pm

    not that comment per se, but yes I have seen these contentious characteristics in some of your other posts, and in my own, and in other people’s. isn’t it nice to admit faults and move on. and yes i’m sensitive. you say that like it’s a bad thing.

  • Matthew August 4, 2014 on 11:33 pm

    when you dictate your “truths” yet are so condescending and rude to others and have an aversion to facts like global warming, and use them as a tool to argue, you fail to proselytize people with your specific religion.

  • Matthew August 5, 2014 on 2:36 pm

    ok i’ll, bite. if you have an aversion to global warming, jim, you should switch to an electric car and buy a solar panel ;D

    just kidding. that would be annoying. i know what you meant. and no quotes necessary. why fear the truth? lying is a sin, remember. thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. surely you have watched some nature documentary that shows the decades of peer reviewed empirical evidence in the form of ice core samples, which go back hundreds of thousands of years, and rock core samples which go back hundreds of millions of years. from these, we know the precise chemistry of the atmosphere throughout this entire period, we know based on supercomputer simulations what this chemistry will do to the temperature, and we are seeing it play out. and by the way, the vast number of ways in which 7 billion people affect this planet goes far beyond the temperature of the air. have you never ridden a plane and seen all that stuff on the ground? there’s runoff from parking lots, farms, fracking poisoning water, rising sea level (by about 15 centimerers so far), vast dead zones along the continental shelves because of sewage from 7 billion of us and our farms creating too much algae in the sea. the list goes on and on and on. wake up dude. stop lying to yourself. “in the age of information, ignorance is a choice”