That’s Using Your Head and Feet

By 2050, We All Will Be Old. This Project Isn’t for Us to Complete. It’s for the Children, Some of Them Probably Not Even Born Yet

By Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

If you think some of the projects you’ve been assigned have been challenging, try this one on for size: Develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win a regulation soccer match against the World Cup champions.

Yes, I know. Wow.

But that’s the goal of the Robot World Cup, an international joint project founded in the early ’90s to promote robotics and artificial intelligence. Of course, the project deadline isn’t until 2050, so there’s still plenty of time, but just stop for a moment and think about the genius of this.

By 2050, we all will be old. This project isn’t for us to complete. It’s for the children, some of them probably not even born yet. And when you couple soccer’s rising popularity in the U.S. with its well-established favor throughout the rest of the world, this could be one of the best moves out there to score with youngsters who might be the engineers of the future.

RoboCup chose to use soccer as a primary domain, and this year’s RoboCupSoccer competition takes place July 14-20 in China, also home to the 2008 Summer Olympics. While soccer is used as a standard problem where a broad range of efforts can be concentrated and integrated, competition is only a part of RoboCup activity. Technical conferences and educational programs also are large components of RoboCup.
Soccer is just one of four areas within RoboCup. RoboCupRescue pursues similar interests with rescue robots. RoboCup@Home investigates human-machine interaction. And RoboCupJunior incorporates soccer, rescue and dance challenges for younger students.

In 1997, the same year that IBM Deep Blue defeated World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and NASA’s Sojourner autonomous robotic system landed on Mars, the first RoboCupSoccer was held in Nagoya, Japan. The U.S. has hosted twice—2001 in Seattle and 2007 in Atlanta—but the competition has moved around the globe from year to year.

What started more than a decade ago with 38 teams from 11 countries has grown considerably, hitting high points recently of 440 teams and 39 countries represented.

But remarkably, 2008 marks the first time that the RobCup competition has come to China, specifically to high-tech Suzhou in the province of Jiangsu. And Zhu Yongxin, vice-mayor of Suzhou, estimates more than 500 teams, consisting of 3,000 scientists from 40 countries, will be participating.

Soccer. Who’d a Thunk It?

Alan Mackworth is recognized as the first person to raise the idea of robots playing soccer in a 1992 paper, later collected in his book, Computer Vision: System, Theory, and Applications.

Around that same time, a group of Japanese researchers held a workshop that led to serious discussions of using the game of soccer for promoting science and technology. After a feasibility study, the group decided to launch a Japanese robotic competition. Global interest from researchers outside of Japan caused the group to turn the venture into an international joint project, and change the name from the Robot J-League to the Robot World Cup Initiative, or RoboCup.

Concurrently, at the Japanese government research center, Electro Technical Laboratory (ETL), a dedicated simulator for soccer games was being developed. This simulator later became the official soccer server of RoboCup. And independent of that, labs at Osaka University and Carnegie Mellon University were working on soccer-playing robots.

In September 1993, the first public announcement of the initiative was made, and the team at ETL announced the Soccer Server version 0, a LISP version, the first open-system simulator for the soccer domain enabling multi-agent systems research, followed by version 1.0 of Soccer Server, a C++ version, which was distributed via the Web. And the first public demonstration of this simulator was made at the 1995 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Montreal, where the announcement was made for the First Robot World Cup Soccer Games and Conferences.

Are you ready to play? Man on.