When robot maker Kuka announced that it would be pitting its Agilus robot against table tennis star Timo Boll last month, we expected a fair fight. Conditioned professional human athlete against a cold, merciless, bright orange mechanical arm on a small wooden field, both wielding the same armament: a miniature bat. Boll was once ranked world number one, but Kuka claimed its robot was the quickest in the world. The Agilus was named for its lightning-fast movements, and would presumably be able to rapidly spin into position and return Boll’s balls from anywhere on the table.
Those hoping for a titanic struggle between human and robot will need to wait: Kuka posted the promised video today to muted reactions. The match appears rigged. Boll drops shots to the robotic arm as he hurtles carelessly around the arena, and puts return shots in easy reach of his foe. Soon the table tennis pro is down 6-0. But Boll has a Hollywood-style epiphany — perhaps realizing he’s playing against a programmable arm — and strikes back to take the game with a powerful smash that puts the ball over the top of his opponent.
Meanwhile, the camera crew is more focused on providing Michael Bay-esque slow-motion shots of the action, cutting in and out of rallies in progress to preserve the narrative. A making-of video explains how the crew were able to get the shots — by standing next to the table and sliding a giant camera in front of Boll’s face — but steers clear of showing unedited footage of the match in progress. A match like this could’ve been an intriguing window into future questions of sportsmanship and competitive entertainment; as it is, it’s nothing more than a glorified commercial.