Robots Are Skiing Now. Will They Take Winter Olympians' Jobs?

No, but they're awesome anyway.


Just down the road from where some of the best human skiers are competing—or, mostly, just waiting for the wind to stop blowing—at the Winter Olympics, eight of the world's most advanced skiing robots took to the slopes.

The results were decidedly mixed:

Adorable though it might be, that little guy probably isn't making Mikaela Shiffrin or Marcel Hirscher look over their shoulders at potential robotic competition. Still, the Robot Ski Challenge—hosted at South Korea's Welli Hilli ski resort, about an hour from the Olympic host city of PyeongChang—is impressive in its own right. Eight teams of robotics experts from universities and private institutions competed for a $100,000 top prize, The Daily Mail reports, with each robot equipped with camera sensors to detect the blue and red flags marking their course down the bunny hill.

Some competitors, like the one above, made a beeline for the flags. Others, though, were more successful at navigating the course—certainly more successful than I was the first time I put on a pair of skis. The Taekwon V, built by the Minirobot Corp., won the competition by successfully navigating the course in less than 18 seconds, according to CNET.

Are robots going to steal Olympic athletes' jobs? Not anytime soon. But the development of robo-skiers is another signal that athletics—like just about every other aspect of modern life—is going to be altered by the rapid advancement of high-level robotics. Some futurists, such as Britain's Ian Pearson, believe that a robotic soccer player capable of outplaying the best human footballers in the world could make its debut by the mid-2040s. If that's true, we might expect high-level robotic skiers much sooner, since skiing (and other Olympic sports, such as swimming and track) requires far less improvisation and mostly depends on the ability to follow a set course as quickly as possible.

Even if Robonia isn't competing at the Olympic Games, there's a good chance human athletes will be improved with the help of future robots. Canadian curling teams have used robots to analyze sweeping techniques to stay ahead of the technological curve—or rather, the curl. It's almost inevitable that high-level athletes in all sports will use robots to assist with training, and advanced biotechnology might help future Olympians go "higher, faster, stronger" (as long as prohibitionists don't get in the way).

Skiing robots have non-athletic applications too. They could be used for search-and-rescue operations in areas that are unsafe or inaccessible to human beings, particularly in the wake of natural disasters. Humans once bred Saint Bernard dogs for those difficult tasks, but it's not too difficult to picture a future where a robo-skier and one of those (admittedly sorta creepy) robotic dogs from Boston Dynamics are working together to save human lives.

Robots are going to disrupt many aspects of modern life, but the future isn't a zero-sum game and the development of advanced robots will enhance human life in ways we likely cannot imagine. "I can't tell you what people are going to do for work 100 years from now," MIT economist David Autor said in 2016, "but the future doesn't hinge on my imagination."

So laugh at the silly little skiing robots while you can. The future is coming, and the first full-fledged Robolympics are going to be awesome!

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  1. The robots can have my sonofab**** job.

  2. I can see them aiding in training, but I can’t imagine them replacing actual athletes. If only because we don’t watch sports to see perfect play. We could have fully and perfectly simulated football right now, but no one wants that either. It’s about watching human freaks play.

    1. And robo-sports will be about watching the creations of human freaks compete. The Robolympics won’t replace the Olympics, but exist alongside it.

      1. I could see that. The only thing I don’t see is them replacing human athletes. Because sports are not just about the activity. It’s about the people doing it.

        1. I was going to agree, but I don’t think it’s right to paint with so broad a brush. It would miss the whole point of watching athletes compete, for some fans. I’m not sure that’s the case for all fans, and even for those to whom it does apply, their tastes and wants may change. If, for some people, deep down it’s about seeing things beat the crap out of each other, or seeing incredible feats happen, or having a team to root for, machines could scratch that itch. Is watching gladiatorial fights, or seeing two dudes throw down in the parking lot, about appreciating physical prowess? Football fans who go on about strategy and split-second decisions may get a kick out of seeing the decisions the latest AIs make. Etc.

          1. And my only point is I don’t believe it will replace them. I could see them coexisting, particularly for deathsport-fans like you described, but I think it will continue to have human athletes.

            But, I’m down to see what happens. I’m ready to be wrong.

            1. Indeed, that was your point, and I did agree with it originally.

              Still, maybe not?

      2. Kind of how people watching RC and slot car racing replaced NASCAR and Indy.

      3. That’s why there’s battlebots, robot wars etc.

        1. No, there are battlebots and robot wars to satisfy those who like to pretend they are above serious combat, all the while having machines do it for them.

    2. Just wait till they raise the minimum wage for Olympians.

  3. The people who claim robots will take every job and make us unemployed rather than rich oversell the capabilities of artificial intelligence not just now but in the future. The strong AI position of there someday being sentient robots who have all of the subtle judgment of human beings has been pretty much discredited. The truth seems to be that AI will get better and better but will always be just more complex and useful versions of the dumb machines we have today. There will always be a need for the kind of judgment and adaptability to any circumstances provided by human intelligence.

    1. Good to see you back, John, and to know that you are not spending all of your time arguing with Popehat on Twitter.

    2. I think that the question of the future potential of AI is very much an open one. We don’t really know how human perception and consciousness work very well.
      It’s possible that as our understanding of such things improves and technology advances people could model human intelligence with something artificial. I really don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, though.

    3. I don’t think Ai/Robotics will replace ALL future jobs… That’s a dumb thing IMO. But it is possible that they will replace enough that our current system of capitalism is no longer workable. This scares me.

      The thing everybody always leaves out of the debate is dumb people. People talk all day long about how people just need to retrain to do the jobs of the future… Never acknowledging that many of the jobs of the future require a certain minimum IQ to ever have a chance at being able to do them. Someone with a 90 IQ will never be able to be a rocket scientist, genetic engineer, programmer etc at any real level. It’s over their head.

      If 60% of the working age population is unemployable, I don’t see a way around a UBI or something along those lines. Other than mass genocide of the slow folks of course. Our society would probably crumble if it was even 20% of the working age population that wanted to work, which is easily conceivable.

      As productivity grows in the future I only see 3 things that make a scenario like the above avoidable:

      1. Massive increases in consumption. If we produce things with 1/5 the manpower as now, but we 5 fold consumption, perhaps we could still employ even most slow folks, provided there are any number of low skilled jobs still required for this.

    4. 2. People CHOOSING to intentionally not implement forms of automation and paying a higher cost just to keep people around. Starbucks rolled out machines that did basically all the coffee making years back, but then removed them because people didn’t like it, and it killed the “vibe” they wanted.

      3. We might see a return to single earner households. Problem with this is people marry those with similar intelligence/education, so you’d likely end up with dual high income households still, with unemployable married couples much of the time.

      Lots of cheap nannies may be available for the dual earners, but again is it enough to keep the system functional? We will certainly create jobs people wouldn’t hire out now if there is a dearth of unskilled labor, but things looking like 19th century England with oodles of servants serving their masters is not a world that will be liked much by many people.

      We will have some degree of all of those things, the question is will it be enough to prevent too many people from being unemployable, which would lead to riots/revolt unless we put in a UBI? Only the future will tell.

  4. So robots won’t take our place. What they will do is augment us. A good example of this is cars. AI proponents are in love with the idea of robotic cars and ending the scourge of human motorists. Robotic cars are always the “next technology” and just a few years away. We are finding out making a fully autonomous car that offers any real advantages over a human driver is a lot more difficult than was claimed. The future is going to be cars that augment human drivers. They might take over in some very simple situations like starting and stopping in traffic, but mostly what they will do is what machines do best, monitor and intervene to help us when we make a mistake leaving humans to do what they do best, judge and adapt to particular circumstances.

    I think that model is what you are going to see in the future in many industries. You won’t have a robot that runs the warehouse. You will have a warehouse worker in a robotic exoskeleton that makes the human much more efficient at his job.

    1. So robots won’t take our place. What they will do is augment us.

      Watching the Boston Dynamics video, I can’t believe that we won’t augment and/or wholly replace pets with robots first.

      Although, watching the Boston Dynamics video, K-Mart owners with automated sliding doors and saloon owners with saloon doors seem like geniuses. So the whole ‘give Fido an arm for the door knob’ notion may be just a fad.

      1. I am pretty sure the appeal of pets goes beyond their mobility. I don’t think robots will be replacing pets soon or ever.

        1. I don’t think robots will be replacing pets soon or ever.

          I still think we’re a little ways off but my point was that we would be augmenting *or* replacing them *first*. Pet-like robots are already pretty popular and unlike humans and/or athletes, most peoples’ association with their pets aren’t extraordinarily sophisticated or without downsides that robots inherently obviate. I think most everyone would be all for a robotic dog that can walk itself well before supporting a bionic Tom Brady that can catch a pass.

          1. Why would a robot dog need exercise?

            Why would a quarterback need to be able to catch a pass?

      2. Remember the first time you encountered an automatic door that didn’t use the big pressure pad? I do. Surprised me a bit but then I noticed a thing poking out at the top and surmised that must be the sensor being used instead of the pad to step on. Hello, Star Trek door.

    2. I pretty much agree with you on these things, John. But I should point out that fully automated warehouses already exist. The systems tend to be very specifically designed for one purpose and are pretty deterministic, so not like what a lot of people imagine for “robots”. But I think that a lot of things like warehouses will be fully automated soon.
      But there is also a strong trend toward collaborative robots now, i.e. robots that can safely work along side or together with humans.
      Humans are still a lot more adaptable and flexible. But they are also goldbricking assholes who can work slowly and sabotage machines (this is actually a big issue, largely in unionized factories where robots are introduced).

    3. Youtube has a Boston Dynamics video featuring more of their robot collection. One of those robots is a large cat that goes up to 32 miles per hour. There is a push to have the speed limit at 25 miles per hour on local streets in New York City. Getting bicycles back to their original stations is the major problem with bike sharing programs. I can imagine New York City banning cars on local Manhattan roads and replacing them with a robotic car sharing program, but it’s more likely that the city will buy the robotic cats and pay a software developer $25 million to reprogram them to ride the bikes back to their original stations.

    4. Back in the day, when I learned to drive big rigs, our instructors always spoke contemptuously of the “idiot lights” that the new generation of drivers relied on instead of their knowledge of and familiarity with their equipment. They were right, but their time was gone. Now we have successive generations of people weaned on “idiot lights”, letting the machines do the essential thinking for them. And look what we have to show for it: Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump.

  5. That skiing robot is an idiot. No dumbo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

    1. They tried to teach it to snowboard but they have yet to perfect a process that allows a robot to get stoned.

      1. “I could like, SEE the ones and zeros, man.”

      2. I think you could simulate normal states of altered consciousness from common drugs by just pseudo-randomly changing their inputs and running junk commands on their processors. Maybe force errors in high-level calculations.

        The biggest problem is in having a robot intelligent enough and able to recognize unreal patterns to know that it’s stoned.

        1. A mind altering drug creates a global change in the brain that makes drug specific neurotransmitters more effective or less effective. It’s the equivalent of programming an AI to add an extra 20 or remove an extra 20 to a predetermined set of calculations every time the programmer flips a switch.

          Emotions have a similar effect, from what I gather after observing them for the past couple of years.

  6. Looks about as safe and effective as a Tesla on autopilot.

    1. Looks about as safe and effective as a Tesla on autopilot.

      Not possibly enough slamming into stuff and bursting into flames.

  7. Who wants to watch robot athletes? It would be like watching those dipshit CGI droid vs. CGI Rasta alien battles in the terrible Star Wars prequels. Midichlorians my ass.

    1. Fist still sends Jake Lloyd a nasty letter every year.

  8. I doubt that a robot soccer player could outflop a human.

    1. Boston Dynamics already has a robot that can flop 72 times in 60 seconds. That’s almost half again as many flops/minute as anybody from Real Madrid.

      1. You are extolling quantity over quality.

        1. Point. The wailing, spasming, and ankle-clutching modules could all use some work.

        2. I don’t believe that robot is really fake injured at all.

          1. You need to see a little blood when a player flops. I get that.

          2. What if it shot out sparks or leaked some fluid?

  9. Why is the robot skier carrying ski poles. The poles don’t touch the snow, except when the robot falls.

  10. Only if they’re transgendered. Then we can accept them.

  11. This technology is awesome. I like watching videos of the robots, even though I have no plans to buy one. Now if they can invent a robot that sets the timer on my VRC …

  12. If anyone is working on a new Fahrenheit 451 movie, they need to give Boston Robotics a call to dress one of their bots as the Hound.

  13. One more reason I’m happy to be closer to the end than to the beginning.

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