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Giant fighting robots should be awesome – but they're not

Tuesday, October 24th 2017 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

Robots are awesome. Just think of the Terminator, Optimus Prime or RoboCop. Awesome.

But these all have something in common – they’re fictional. Movie robots are ace but in reality it’s a different story.

The truth – and honestly I hate to say it – is that robots tend to be a bit shit.

And let’s just be clear – we’re really talking about fighting robots here. There are thousands of robots being used everyday for all sorts of things and it would take far too long to talk about them all here.

The thing is, robots are supposed to be cool. I get excited every time there’s a news story about a real-life one, only to be completely underwhelmed.

This happened last week when I heard the US was taking on Japan in what was billed as the world’s first giant robot duel.

I pictured something like a scene from Real Steel (***WARNING: video contains spoilers***).

The reality was somewhat different. The fight was streamed on Twitch last week but actually took three days to film. The ‘action’ was then edited down to a 27-minute video in which there’s about five minutes of robots actually fighting.

A voiceover at the start of the video declares: “For decades we’ve imagined giant fighting machines built in our image. That technology is finally here. The age of giant fighting robots has arrived.”

But from then on it’s all a bit slow and scripted. The robots are very heavy and as they have human pilots on board there’s an obvious need to put safety first, which doesn’t make for the most thrilling of encounters.

About eight minutes in we get our first taste of robot-on-robot action. The Japanese robot rolls into the American robot and knocks it over. In the second round one of the robots hides behind oil barrels for a while then they get stuck in mid-fight because one of them hits an emergency switch.

It all comes down to round three, where we see the robots shoving each other until the American one pulls out a chainsaw and is declared the winner.

It seems Real Steel’s world of robot boxing is a long way off. But I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Most robot battles seem to consist of a lot of shuffling about and more than a few missed punches.

There are countless examples online but honestly, they’re all pretty much the same. If you ever played Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots as a kid, you could be forgiven for thinking things haven’t progressed much since then.

Anyone who’s seen Robot Wars will know that it is possible to create a cool-looking fighting robot that can also actually inflict damage on its opponent and not be shit, but apparently not a humanoid one just yet.

The co-founder of MegaBots, the company that staged last week’s giant robot battle and represented the US with its robot, understands that not everyone will have been overly impressed by the bout.

“I think the first time you create anything you’re going to have a lot of critics who say it’s not what they imagined,” Gui Cavalcanti told The Verge. “The Beatles were not immediately popular, right?”

Mr Cavalcanti admits that better robots will be needed if MegaBots’ plan to create a whole giant fighting robot league is to be successful.

“We need robots that are 20, 25mph fast, zooming across the arena. And they need to be able to punch each other, and they need to be able to punch faster,” he said.

You have to say, giant fighting robots hitting each other and speeding around at 25mph does sound pretty awesome. I’m getting excited all over again.

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