Robots as Athletes: Soccer-Playing Robots May Help Advance Artificial Intelligence

Article excerpt

Imagine robots that can play soccer (football) at the level of the World Cup championships. For researchers in artificial intelligence, such an event would be tantamount to--and possibly even surpass--that moment in 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer defeated then-world champion Garry Kasparov in chess.

The challenges are daunting. Autonomous, athletically capable humanoids that act together as a unit would require not just highly advanced software (the intellectual component) but also highly advanced hardware (the physical component). By sharing knowledge and codes, and developing and testing technologies together, AI designers hope to realize this vision.

Launched in 1993, the RoboCup international robot soccer competition (also known as the Robot World Cup Initiative) provides a platform for AI and robotics researchers to test their developments, work together, spur each other on, and create research breakthroughs. It is a competition in the best sense of the word--the kind that facilitates cooperation.

In his essay "Robot Soccer," University of New South Wales computer science and engineering professor Claude Sammut describes the different levels of play, pointing out that the robotic soccer fields are smaller (and virtual in some low-level competitions), and the rules much simpler than in soccer played by humans. Currently, there are only three robots per team, as compared to eleven in human play. Sammut writes: "As the robots and their programming have become more sophisticated, the rules of the game, including field size and number of players, have been made tougher to encourage progress."

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French company Aldebaran Robotics' humanoid Nao is the model of robot currently in use in the RoboCup. While still relatively basic, these humanoid robots use color cameras as their primary sensors (not unlike HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), operate autonomously (as opposed to being remote-controlled), and can communicate with each other wirelessly. …