Move over Victoria's Secret models and former presidents, it's a robot's turn to throw out the first pitch!

On May 29, 2010, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw a perfect game. It was only the twentieth time ever a pitcher had reached perfection. Halladay told reporters that he tries to separate emotions from the job at hand and focus on pitching strategy: “you really can’t have feelings out there, you know, you gotta almost think of yourself as a robot.”

The Phillies have made good on Halladay’s advice. This afternoon, at Citizen’s Bank Park a robot is going to throw out the first pitch. Built by the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, Phillibot bears little resemblance to the muscular, Terminator-type robotic physiques in the movies. Admittedly working on short-notice (they had a month and a half), Penn engineers Jordan Brindza and Jamie Gewirtz took pieces from other mechanizations and slapped them together. The wheeled base is taken from a Segway, those personal motorized transportation machines used by mall and airport security. A third wheel was added for stability and the Segway handlebars were replaced with a robotic pitching arm, made by Barrett Technology Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. To the arm they attached a “hand” designed by doctoral engineering student Christian Moore. The hand is a lightweight, carbon-fiber scoop that tosses the ball about 30-40 mph. The motion of the pitching arm is driven by a pneumatic cylinder located just behind the hand, which delivers a precisely-timed burst of compressed carbon dioxide gas. Enabled by software to modify pitch speed and location, the Philliebot can throw a lot faster than 30-40 mph. The Phillies are asking it not to.

Brindza and Gewirtz’s strategy was to gather the bare minimum requirements. As long as it gets the ball over the plate, that’s all that matters. Some pitching coaches have been known to make similar statements.

The first pitch will take place before the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at 1:05 pm EST this afternoon. Philliebot’s appearance is part of Philadelphia’s science festival, which began last Friday and runs through April 28.

Could the Philliebot be the Jackie Robinson of robotic ballplayers, paving the way for the artificially-intelligent and athletically-inclined? Probably not. But robotics has already seen an important first in 2011. From the game of chess to the game of Jeopardy to the game of baseball, future contests will see all eyes gradually turn away from the robots to us. And the question will be, then, not how they measure up, but how do we?


Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.