We all know the robots are coming. That probably inspires some complicated feelings.
So, it's comforting when a three-year development effort to make a robot that can set a speed record results in a human victory... by a wide margin.
Yamaha and robotics developer SRI have been working on a humanoid that can ride an unmodified motorcycle. The goal was to beat the lap times of one of the most successful motorcycle racers of all time, Valentino Rossi.
As I wrote last year, it's an alluring challenge. We've seen human v. robot competitions before (think Deep Blue or Watson). The robot usually blows the human out of the water.
The difference here is that both competitors are bound by a distinct upper limit: The motorcycle's performance. During his best runs, Rossi, winner of nine Grand Prix World Championships, is pushing the bike very close to that limit.
Motobot perches atop the motorcycle the same way a human rider does. It has six actuators to control steering, throttle, front brake, rear brake, clutch, and the motorcycle's gearshift pedal.
The completely autonomous robot reads data from the bike in real time and makes decisions to optimize performance. With a carbon fiber shell, it's very lightweight. That power-to-weight ratio makes Motobot faster than Rossi on straightaways with an open throttle.
But the art of motorcycle racing is in manipulating the bike like a delicate instrument. In the video, Rossi is able to lean much further into turns and redistribute his weight to guide the bike through cleaner lines.
Rossi's actions can be broken down into discreet physical movements, but it's difficult to isolate the nuance of his riding style. His creativity and artistry gives him the advantage.
With limited actuation, Motobot can only make the bike lean so far.
The result? Rossi's two-mile time is a good 30 seconds faster than Motobot's.