Posted at 1:00 am on April 1, 2013
Move over humanoids, the machines are taking over. For the first time, a robotic skip will be headed to the World Curling Championship. The South Korean team will be skipped by a robot loaded with one of the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) programs in the world.
The robot, which has been code-named SCIP (“Specialized Curling Intelligence Program”), skipped a team (consisting of three humans) to the Korean national championship, earning them the right to represent the country at the World Championship. But wait, are non-humans allowed to play at the Worlds? Technically, yes, according to a World Curling Federation (WCF) representative.
“To be honest, it’s simply not something we ever thought to include in the rule book,” the representative told Curling Scoops in an interview following the Korea nation championship.
“Until we hold our annual meeting at the end of the season and vote on an amendment (to the WCF rules), there’s nothing we can do. The robot is allowed to play.”
People have often compared curling to “chess on ice”, so that inspired Myung Yu to develop AI software that would analyze thousands of potential curling shots and angles, allowing the software to produce a theoretically perfect strategy. Super computer chess wizards have existed for decades, but Yu says this is the first true grand master curling program.
“The most obvious obstacle differentiating curlers from chess players, is that once we plan our strategy, we still need to make the shot,” Yu told Curling Scoops. “Just because the program gives us the ‘ideal’ shot, doesn’t mean the player will execute the shot accurately.”
That’s where Hwan Lee comes in. Lee is an robotic engineer who is also an avid curler. He has spent the better part of a decade developing a curling robot, which uses laser scanning technology to read the ice.
“My robot is able to do most tasks that a human curler would do,” Lee explains. “It uses laser tracking to measure the velocity and curl of each stone, so it can perfectly read the ice and identify irregular patches of ice, such as straight spots or slow spots. An electronic piston will launch a rock down the ice with the exact weight and trajectory that a user inputs.”
“You pick any spot on the ice, and the robot will adjust the angle and weight based on the ice conditions to put it there.”
When the two men heard of each other’s projects, it was a match made in curling heaven. Lee had a robot with perfect accuracy but required user input for strategy. Yu had a program with perfect strategy but no ability to make its own shots. When they combined their technology, it resulted in a weapon more powerful than either of them dreamed.
“We created it to be a little fun, but hadn’t thought to enter SCIP in bonspiels,” Yu laughed.
After taking their creation to the Seoul Curling Club for a little fun, they caught the attention of one of the country’s few competitive teams, formerly skipped by Yeong Kim.
Kim said his team approached Lee and Yu to see if they could use their contraption for training purposes. The two men agreed, but after only a few hours using the robot, Kim’s rink realized the amazing potential of SCIP.
“SCIP was a much better curler than any of us,” Kim admitted with a smile. “For fun, we set up a quadruple raise to the button through a port. SCIP made the shot perfectly.”
That’s when they checked the rule book.
“It was a crazy idea,” Kim said, looking back on it. “We wanted to know if a rule existed about actually putting SCIP on our roster for the national playdowns.”
No such rule existed, so Kim stepped down to the third position and allowed SCIP to be skip.
The robo-team cut through the competition with unprecedented ease. Blanking all their opponents in the round robin: 15-0, 12-0, 19-0, and 10-0. They continued their dominance through the semi-finals, winning 11-0. They finished off the tournament with another 11-0 victory, claiming the national crown. What’s even more impressive: SCIP curled an average of 100% through the entire tournament.
“I think in one game SCIP got 99%,” Lee laughed. “His shot picked on some debris, so we’ll count that as a sweeping error.”
What does this mean for Canadian curlers? There are some crucial things we can learn from SCIP. The most important lesson, however, is to always be skeptical of articles you read on April 1. Have a happy April Fools Day!