Robot triathlete challenges human dominance on Ironman course

Robots beat us at chess and Jeopardy but human triathlete jobs are safe for now

Is there anyone who still thinks robots can't beat humans at anything humans can do?

Didn't Ol' John Henry settle this 100 years ago?

That steam engine is than even the steel-drivin'est man, John. It don't need to eat nor sleep (and it doesn't complain as much if the mining company isn't quite as strict about all those safety rules as it could be).

Didn't the IBM supercomputers that took global titles in chess and Jeopardy prove that silicon can be smarter than meat if you narrow things down to just a few functions that brains and microprocessors handle in similar ways and then race to see who can finish first?

Humans know how to mine coal and play chess and play Jeopardy (but, oddly, no one has yet figured out whether there are rules to Australian Rules Football or whether the Ozzies are just making it all up as they go.)

Humans know what it would take to perform better at those things than they can. Humans know how to build machines and how to design machines to do the specific things humans can't.

Robots don't beat humans at anything. It's not a competition.

It's a design exercise.

Engineers beat John Henry, not the steam engine. Engineers and mining-company executives who figured the steam engine would work cheaper and John Henry could retrain as a receptionist or dental technician or something after they laid him off with no benefits.

So why is a Japanese robot named Evolta running the course of this year's Ironman World Championship triathlon next month?

For the honor and glory of Panasonic, which designed it and promote the rechargeable batteries on which Evolta runs (which Panasonic estimates can be recharged 1,800 times by placing them on a recharging pad).

Evolta is not entered in the actual race. It would get squished by the other competitors, probably on purpose.

The green-and-white 'bot is less than two feet tall and unbelievably slow. It will start the Ironman course Oct. 24 and finish in about a week (168 hours), according to its designer. Last year's winner in the men's division finished in eight hours 10 minutes, 37 seconds; the winner of the women's division crossed the line an hour and six minutes later.

Evolta's run will not involve a photo finish.

"Evolta's height is just one-tenth of a grown man, so we figured out that it would take it 10 times more time," Panasonic design engineer Tomotaka Takahashi told Reuters.

"It" will run the course in three different bodies, which raises the question of whether one entity named Evolta ran the course or three different models of the same machine. It will also change batteries as often as it needs to.

None of the human competitors will get a chance to do that when the real Ironman World Championship race is run Oct. 8.

Panasonic has also used Evolta for other publicity stunts – climbing the walls of the Grand Canyon and pedaling its way around the racetrack at Le Mans for 24 hours – also to promote the rechargeable batteries that power Evolta (they're double-A's).

The event is called the Panasonic EVOLTA World Challenge IV. World Challenge, in this case meaning "event staged by and for Panasonic," despite language and locations that make it sound like an actual sporting event.

Panasonic held a well-attended press conference earlier today to announce the event and got plenty of press coverage.

Despite the pictures and hyperbolic headlines, what this really boils down to is Panasonic putting batteries in an unusually resilient and adaptable toy, then sending staff along to make sure it doesn't run out of power, sink or run into a ditch while it keeps going in the direction it's pointed until someone picks it up and turns it off.

Skynet this ain't. If your job is to run triathlons, Evolta will not be putting you out of work any time soon.

Watch for the exciting highlights on ESPN49.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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