“Computers are absurdly more accurate than humans,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote approvingly on Twitter.
CUE5 is a sight to behold: Its 7-foot, 220-pound physique is comparable to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis. The robot bears a slight resemblance to C3P0 from Star Wars, although its all-black exterior and faceless design project an intimidating air. For the Olympics, CUE5 is dressed in a black jersey with a Japanese flag, “Tokyo 2020” and the number “95” across its chest, black shorts, and oversized gray shoes with red shoelaces.
These aesthetic details and the complex AI computing power inside CUE5′s body are the brainchild of Toyota project leader Tomohiro Nomi. The 43-year-old Nomi has worked at Toyota for two decades, focusing his efforts on basketball robots for the last four years.
The CUE team has made remarkable and gradual progress given that it originally launched as a volunteer program. CUE1 shot only free throws and featured a plain base. CUE2 stood on two legs and added a three-point shot. CUE3 entered the Guinness Book of World Records in May 2019 – under the category “Most consecutive basketball free throws by a humanoid robot (assisted)” – by making 2,020 consecutive free throws in 6 hours and 35 minutes.
CUE4 participated in a three-point contest at Japan’s B League All-Star Game in front of thousands of fans. Along the way, Toyota partnered with Levanga Hokkaido, a Japanese professional basketball team, to take its development to the next level.
CUE5, the latest model, has delighted media members, basketball officials and television viewers during the Olympics, which are being held without fans. According to Nomi, CUE5 can shoot “almost 100 percent” on 15-foot free throws, 98 percent on three-pointers from the 22-foot, 1.75-inch international line and better than 60 percent on half-court shots, which travel nearly 46 feet.
By comparison, Chris Paul led the NBA last season by shooting 93 percent on free throws, Bogdan Bogdanovic posted a league-best 44 percent on three-pointers and Curry managed to make 39 percent of his attempts from beyond 30 feet.
In other words, CUE5 comfortably outshoots the NBA’s best at all three distances, although it doesn’t need to worry about pesky defenders or shot clocks. Curry, who once made 105 consecutive unguarded three-pointers at practice, would surely be CUE5’s toughest human competition.
“Stephen Curry is my favorite player,” Nomi said during an interview in Saitama on Saturday. “I want to see [a shooting contest between CUE5 and Curry]. That’s my dream.”
CUE5 boasts seven sensors: One in its chest to measure the distance to the hoop, two in its feet for moving, and four in its hands for picking up the ball and dribbling. CUE5’s hands are huge – “like Shaquille O’Neal,” Nomi said – because its palms handle the dribbling while its long fingers are responsible for cradling the ball during its shooting motion. All told, approximately 25 parts in the robot’s arms and legs are activated on each shot.
Nomi, who was accompanied by a team of 13 technicians at the Olympics, has gone to great lengths to imbue his robots with humanlike qualities. CUE5 shoots with a typical motion, picking up the ball off a rack with two hands, bending at the knees, using its left hand as a guide hand, executing the shot with its right hand from above its right shoulder and following through with a flick of the wrist. The robot is even programmed to wave to the crowd as it enters and leaves the court.
CUE5’s 12-second shooting routine has drawn comparisons to Antetokounmpo, who was regularly heckled during the playoffs for taking longer than 10 seconds to attempt his free throws. Unlike the Milwaukee Bucks superstar, CUE5 cannot feel pressure. His designer, however, knows Antetokounmpo’s pain.
“I’m always nervous,” Nomi said, even though CUE5’s only missed three-pointer at the Games came when the ball deflected off a camera wire that was suspended above the court.
While CUE5’s Olympic demonstrations have taken place from the middle of the court, its distance sensor allows it to shoot from any angle. According to Nomi, CUE5 has a 1.2-degree margin of error to make a free throw. That drops to 0.8-degree for three-pointers and less than 0.5-degree on half-court shots.
Misses can be chalked up to noise in its distance sensor reading or slight variations in the ball’s size, weight or center of gravity. Previous CUE robots swayed during and after their shots in a way that negatively impacted shooting efficiency.
The robot can make real-time adjustments if it shoots too short or too long, but it will never attempt a bank shot as a matter of principle.
“A swish looks much better than using the backboard,” Nomi said.
Toyota has pitched its robotic advancements as a point of national pride, although its representative declined to discuss the CUE program’s design and production costs.
While Nomi has spent so much time on the CUE project that he considers the robots to be his “friends,” he is quick to acknowledge their limitations and said it could be another 10 or 20 years before they can play the sport.
After mastering the art of shooting, though, Nomi has his heart set on another major innovation.
“I don’t know his limits yet,” Nomi said. “I want the robot to try to dunk. We would have to change everything. Jumping for a dunk, moving in the air, that’s a challenge.”