There’s a reason these boxers fight like robots: It’s because they areOn this cool, gray Saturday afternoon here in Bucheon, about 30 minutes southwest of Seoul, the sky threatens to unleash torrential rain at any moment. But at this city’s most popular attraction, Techno Park, more than 200 people are content to remain outdoors. The crowd is mostly male. Many of them sit in white lawn chairs; others stand restlessly. There are even people looking on from the windows of an adjacent building. A few children sprawl on the cement patio, eating ice cream. Photographers squat, focusing their cameras for still shots. Video crews from the major television networks take position.
The fight is ready to begin.
The one-square-meter (11-square-foot) arena is just large enough for one boxer to slide a little to the left or to the right. Put another fighter in the ring and neither would be able to move. But this is not an ordinary boxing match; it is something called “KROC: Korea Robo-One Competition.”
In this competition, robots face off in a challenge to determine which is of superior construction. The first round is a skills demonstration, where the robots perform feats such as somersaults or bowing to the audience. In the following rounds the robots engage in one-on-one, hand-to-hand fighting for two minutes, aiming to knock their opponents down. If a robot does not get back on its feet within 10 seconds, it has lost the round. The designer of the winning robot will receive 3 million won ($2,500) in prize money from Bucheon City Hall, which has agreed to provide the cash in hopes of raising interest in Bucheon Techno Park.
Many of the spectators are robot fanatics who found out about the competition through the Internet. Lee Chang Yang, a student researcher at the Korean Institute of Science and Technology, explains his fascination with robots. “I love them, I can’t explain why. There is no real reason for my feeling. I just really, really love robots,” he chirps.
The robots, all approximately one foot tall, have names like “Typhoon 2003,” “2 Sunny-No.1,” and “Bounus 7.” They are controlled remotely by consoles that range from an altered Nintendo controller to a laptop. The robots are predominantly silver in color, with silver, red, and green trim. Their chests are stamped with “V” or the Korean flag. Their feet are square sheets of metal; their hands resemble clothespins. The robots have about 24 motors, each costing 70,000 won. The “managers” are college students who have obtained funding through their schools and other sponsors.
The competition begins with introductory remarks from the announcer, who peppers his speech with words like “fascinating” and “impressive.”
“The robots are like people,” he says. “When you see them, it is fascinating. How do they walk like that?”
Despite their being described as “humanoid,” their movements are more like a lurch. Some shuffle their feet like they are dancing and sway back and forth. One robot, Myro, flaps its arms like a bird and makes a motion as if flexing its muscles, much to the delight of the audience. When Myro stands up from a reclining position, the crowd reacts as if it has risen from the dead.
Song Byeong-gyu, a staff member of KROC and a 22-year-old student majoring in robotics technology, explains the importance of robotics research and development. “In 10 to 20 years robots will be intelligent and autonomous, able to clean, wash dishes and do laundry. They will make living easy for people,” he states confidently.
Meanwhile, one robot has tumbled without even being touched by its opponent and is helplessly flailing its arms. Its rival attempts to approach and inflict more damage, but suddenly turns and marches in the other direction. The audience groans.
Fortunately, the action improves. The robots slowly approach each other, seeming more in a mood to link arms than to punch. Then one falls over, and children chant with the announcer: “One! Two! Three!” But this was not a knockout. It stands up dramatically at nine seconds. In a later match one robot uses its body weight to knock down its opponent, and the announcer screams, “For an instant the robot became a sumo wrestler!” The audience cheers.
After several elimination rounds, the final round is between Typhoon 2003 and Myro. The spectators stare more intently than ever at every move, every twitch, every quivering of metal. In the end, Typhoon 2003’s impressively effective gun-like fists proves too powerful, and Typhoon emerges as the winner. Myro, from Myong-ji University, takes second place. Typhoon 2003, constructed by a student from SoonChunHyang University, was also the first-place winner in the 1st Asia Robo-one Competition in May.
Journalists lugging their notebooks, cameras, and microphones, clamor toward the beaming winner in a frenzy. The audience leaves talking in excited voices, glancing at the sky.
Song Byeong-gyu sighs with satisfaction. “The next time there is a robotics competition in Korea, I will compete! I must!”
by Julie Kim
For more information, check out www.robo-one.or.kr.