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Olympic Ready? Robot Skiers Compete in South Korea

14 February, 2018

As the world's top athletes competed at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, some robots also showed off their winter sports skills.

A ski race involving robots was held recently at the Welli Hilli Park ski area near Pyeongchang.

Eight teams built and programmed the robots to compete in the Ski Robot Challenge for a chance to win a $10,000 prize.

The robots came in different shapes and sizes.

The rules, however, required them to have the basic form of a human. They needed to be able to stand on two "legs," with joints similar to elbows and knees. They also had to be at least 50 centimeters tall.

In addition, each robot had to have an independent power system and use the same skis and poles that people do. A Facebook page for the competition listed the robot names and described details of how they were built.

Some of the racers looked very human-like, complete with winter clothes covering their mechanical bodies. Others rode down the hill with nothing covering their shiny, high-tech parts. Some racers were tall, others short. Some did not have heads.

The robots - equipped with cameras and sensors - used artificial intelligence, or AI, to move through the Olympic-style race course. The winner was the robot that made it down the hill fastest, with the lowest number crashes or collisions with course obstacles.

Winning that top honor was the TaekwonV robot, built by South Korean robotics company Minirobot. TaekwonV – named after a South Korean film character – skied around five obstacles before finishing the course in 18 seconds.

On the day of the competition, high winds forced some of the Olympic skiing events to be delayed. One member of the winning team, Lee Sok-min, said he was sorry to hear about the Olympic weather problems. But he added, "The robots are doing fine here."

Videos of the robotic race clearly showed some of the robots having trouble staying up on the skis and navigating the course. But several watchers of the event said they found the race an interesting way to show off some of the latest human-like robots.

"I'm amazed that the robots recognize the flags as they can ski down while avoiding them," 12-year-old Son Ki-ryong told Reuters.

The organizer of the race, Kim Dong-Uk, said he hopes the event will be the start of something much bigger. "I think in the future, robots will have their own Winter Games on the sidelines of the Olympics held by humans," he said.

He added that until then, he will keep holding international events to show off South Korea's robotic technology to the world.

South Korea is one of several Asian nations heavily investing in robotics, AI and machine learning technology. Major developers include electronics giants Samsung and LG. Japan and Singapore also have growing robotics industries.

But Asia's largest robotics developer by far is China, which set a goal to become the world leader over the next decade. The goal is part of the government's "Made in China 2025" plan, which seeks to change many industries with the use of technology.

One of the country's most active AI developers is Chinese online seller Alibaba. The company recently announced an AI-powered learning tool it developed performed better than human beings in a high-level test of reading comprehension.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from Reuters, Facebook and other sources. Mario Ritter was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

athlete n. person who is trained or good at sports

artificial intelligence n. the ability of a machine to reproduce human behavior

course n. a path followed by people in a race

obstacle n. an object standing in the way of something

navigate v. to find the way to get to a certain place

amaze v. to surprise and sometimes confuse (someone) very much

comprehension n. the ability to understand something