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March Madness?

Watch a sparkly basketball robot built by Toyota engineers sink flawless free throws

Nothing but (neural) nets

By James Vincent Mar 15, 2018

It's a tale as old as time. Inspired by a famous manga about basketball, a group of engineers from Toyota worked together in their free hours to build a robot capable of shooting perfect free throws. Eventually, after perfecting their mechanical creation, they challenged professional human players and beat them shot for shot.

That's the story reported by Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun anyway, and the video evidence above certainly bears it out. Although, exactly what technology is powering this free throw-shooting bot is unclear. Asahi Shimbun says AI was used to teach the robot how to shoot, but the video evidence makes the bot look pretty unsophisticated. It moves about on wheels and just repeats the same motions again and again.

Still, this sort of unimaginative perfection is apparently enough to beat the robot's human opponents - a couple of players from local B-league basketball team Alvark Tokyo. This seems to always be the case when humans go head-to-head with AI and robots. Even if a machine isn't as imaginative or talented as a human, it's always more consistent.

As Garry Kasparov said of his historic defeats playing IBM's Deep Blue: "To win the game, [a machine] just has to make fewer mistakes than humans. Which is not that difficult since humans are humans and vulnerable, and we don't have the same steady hand as the computer."

In this case, Toyota's robot does indeed have some very steady hands. But we can't imagine it playing good defense.