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 finishing 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.