Robot samurai is real: man, machine face off in swordplay

Forget SkyNet. This is the robot you should be looking out for. We've seen quite a few robotic arms that move and grip with grace and finesse to replicate the capabilities of the human hand, but there is one case that requires an insane amount of grace, strength, and concentration that has not yet been tested on robots. Until today. Yaskawa Electronics has brought its MOTOMAN-MH24 robot to learn from and compete against Isao Machii, a 5-time world record holder in the art of iaijyutsu, combative quick-draw sword technique.

You'll probably be familiar with the muddled fact and fiction that have risen around these professional swordsmen, their uncanny ability to slice an object and the amount of training and technique required to execute those. Robots, however, are supposedly designed and programmed to learn faster than humans and, in a perfect scenario, replicate human abilities. Yaskawa puts that theory to the test.

At first, the Motoman robot learns from Machii, through motion capture, sensors, and human programming. All throughout, Machii offers his expertise in guiding technicians who would have very little knowledge about the almost arcane art. After some input, it was time to see if the student can overcome the master.

There is some fruit to all that labor. The robot was, for the most part, able to perform the different cuts of swordplay. It does, however, lack the refinement of a human swordsman but could make up for it in accuracy, as shown in its ability to slice a pea pod in half horizontally. The real test, however, is the last Thousand Cuts, which requires both man and robot to make 1,000 slices. Machii leads in the beginning, due to the robot's rather stiff and mechanical movements that prevent it from moving to the next cut quickly. In time, however, human frailty causes Machii to slow down and the two finish almost simultaneously.

And the lessons learned from this Bushido Project? Aside from the fact that robots can slice you with deadly accuracy, it reveals how much machines can learn to learn to imitate even actions that require a more "human" touch. That said, grace of execution has never been a robot's forte, at least not yet, and legends like Machii are unlikely to be replaced by mechanical automatons any time soon.