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I Attempted to Fight A Robot Faster Than Floyd Mayweather

Behold the AI overlords of your fitness future

When I first heard about a punching bag that could dodge punches — any punches, no matter how fast — I laughed. First because of how exciting it was to hear that such technology could exist, but then because I seriously doubted whether it could be any good.

It’s not that I consider myself the second coming of Muhammad Ali, but it’s fair to say that I’ve hit a fair amount of punching bags in my life, including shifty ones designed to confuse your aim and get you off your rhythm. Plus, over the last century, little has changed in the equipment people use to train for striking sports like boxing or Muay Thai. The tools of the trade have always been brutally elegant in their simplicity — gloves and a bag, primarily — and I wondered if BotBoxer, which claims to sense your movement and dodge blows faster than any human can, could live up to its hype.

I certainly wasn’t alone in my skepticism. Tony Jeffries, the pro and Olympic boxer who won bronze for England at the 2008 Summer Games, first spotted the contraption at a conference for the International Health, Racquetball and Sportsclub Association held in San Diego in March. He was there to rep his gym, Box N Burn, and noticed chatter around him about a robotic punching bag capable of eluding haymakers of every kind and speed. Jeffries, himself endowed with a sneaky-fast jab, couldn’t resist trying to prove otherwise.

“If there’s an exciting new development in the boxing industry, I’m the first one there, and I’m also the biggest critic,” he explains. “There are so many gimmicks, so much BS out there. I’ve got a very nice car, you know, and I would’ve bet the thing that I could hit this machine.”

So Jeffries sauntered up to the BotBoxer booth and discovered an unusual-looking contraption. Designed by the company SkyTechSport, BotBoxer sports a punching “bag” that sits on top of an arm that’s connected to a heavy motorized base, making it look like an oversized joystick. (SkyTechSport’s first simulator was an ingenious ski/snowboard contraption that motors you across a horizontal rail in front of a screen to mimic the effects of charging down a snowy path.) Metal tubing forms a half-circle cage around the sides and rear of the BotBoxer, offering about a 180-degree area that you can attack. To the right is a touchscreen monitor with myriad available settings, including reaction time, how far the bag can dodge and even the probability of successful dodges.

Jeffries squared up, stared the machine down and snapped a jab out. Whiff. He squared his shoulders again and shot another jab out. Whiff again. “I couldn’t hit the thing,” Jeffries says, grinning. “This machine is faster than Floyd Mayweather, I really believe that. When I finally hit it after lowering the reaction time, I felt a little better about it.”

He’s telling me all of this from his Santa Monica gym, which hosted the machine last month and where I’ve been invited to try it. Milidzhan Gevorkyan, who oversees product marketing for SkyTechSport, warms me up by asking me to shadowbox in front of the machine. Next, he has me inch closer and closer to it, the point being to calibrate my perception of how sensitive it is to movement.

The subtlety of its movement catches me off guard: When I wiggle my lead shoulder, feinting a jab with my right hand, the bag wiggles to my left. If I square my torso to it with a step forward, it jerks back and settles into a lean. I start throwing some easy punches, and quickly discover that BotBoxer isn’t using jerky, unnatural mechanical movements to dodge my shots — it’s slipping them by a centimeter or two, fluidly snapping back to center after I whiff.

Having warmed up, Gevorkyan suggests I battle the Botboxer on its “Fight” setting, which attempts to replicate some of the human qualities you might find in a live sparring session. “If you keep it moving, it’ll start to tire. And if it tires, you can try landing some bigger combos,” he explains. “If you can get it from 100 percent down to zero, it’ll be knocked down.”

For the first minute, I’m confident I’m going to murder this thing. I’m moving light on my feet, attacking the red bag with quick jabs and left-hand crosses that seem to land consistently, though I’m not getting much power into them. Still, the BotBoxer is already down to 65 percent strength. Feeling emboldened, I start throwing larger, looping shots with my left hand. The thrill of catching the bot hard on consecutive hits gives me a surge of giddiness — at least until I realize how exhausted I’m becoming.

Boxing wisdom observes that a whiffed punch is more tiring than one that lands, and I’m whiffing a lot. Frustrated, I begin to throw more long shots, but they’re accompanied by sloppy footwork that makes me jerk sideways. The final 30 seconds of the three-minute round leaves me second-guessing every shot in a bid to save energy. (“Go! Faster! It’s regaining energy!” Gevorkyan urges). I’ve done a decent job, but fallen short of my goal of a first-round knockdown. Also: I’m officially dripping in sweat.

Overall, among the most challenging aspects of striking training is understanding how to manipulate distance between you and an opponent. Without actually sparring a real human or working hand pads with a coach, it’s extremely difficult to replicate the small movements that determine whether a left cross lands or misses. There are plenty of examples of how calculated dodging can ruin an average person’s ability to hit anything at all, and getting knocked out in the ring is often a byproduct of leaning in too much, or losing balance on a wild, reaching punch.

The BotBoxer attempts to account for such minutiae. The machine uses high-speed motion-tracking cameras to read the body in front of it, and three servomotors in the black plastic base move the punching bag swiftly and quietly on four axes. “So whenever you punch it, it can read the movements of your shoulders and see if you’re pulling your shoulder back to load up a strike or try to throw a faster one,” project leader Alex Golunov tells me. “The cool part is that allows you to train more deceptive punching, without so much telegraphing, which you want to avoid in a real boxing situation.”

Currently, SkyTechSport is trying to get BotBoxers into boxing gyms with the hope of courting more feedback from fighters, but the ultimate goal is to sell the machines to mainstream gyms. The $20,000 price tag may look daunting, but considering top gyms can spend upwards of $10,000 on modern treadmills, Golunov sees major market potential, noting that a lot of people get bored in gym routines and could benefit from the rig’s competitive, game-like drills and fight settings. Market studies would seem to back him up as the mixed martial arts training industry is primed to grow rapidly in the next four years, with high rates of return expected from punching bags in particular.

There are some unintentionally hilarious examples of other robotic boxing prototypes, but to Golunov, it’s more a matter of safety than technology and basic mechanics. For instance: While BotBoxer took more than four years to develop, the vast majority of that time was spent engineering it to be consistently safe. “We could injure people if it tracked a body in the background and moved the wrong way,” Golunov explains.

So for now at least, this little machine stands as a realistic glimpse into the future of working out. Jeffries, for one, has become a convert. “I believe anything is possible now,” he says. “What if this became a sparring partner where you can pick height, punch power and length? If someone makes a machine that could hit you back, that would be amazing for the industry. Because then you really can box Floyd Mayweather every day.”