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Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


While football is known for the brawny and computer science the brainy, both fields share several common threads. Popular throughout the world, both spheres have bred countless, obsessive fans and have proven to be lucrative lines of work. Hal Cohen meets them at an interesting crossover.
Earlier this May, the first International RoboCup Federation's American Open brought computer scientists throughout North and South America to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to battle for the RoboCup, the most sought after prize at the intersection of football and robotics.
RoboCup is an international project to foster advances in artificial intelligence and robotics research. The Federation's ultimate goal is to develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world soccer champion team by 2050. However, the Brazilian national team can breathe easy for now, the competitors themselves are roughly the height of a football.
Among the divisions in the American Open are the AIBO league, consisting of the popular, electronic pet dogs from Sony that stand about 15 cm tall, and the small sized robot league, which brings to mind a Rubik's cube on top of a hockey puck. The field is also on a miniature scale, as the playing field is roughly 10 meters squared, or about two table-tennis surfaces joined together.
The small-sized robots are quicker and more agile because of their wheels, so their play is much more fluid than the AIBOs. While the action isn't an apt substitute for authentic football, the quality is somewhat impressive taking into account the robots are completely autonomous. That is, there are no remote controls.
Once play begins the programmers become spectators. "It's kind of like watching your children at a school play," says Tucker Balch, assistant professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "You can't do anything about them, so you sit back, and just hope they do the right thing."
The programmers encode the robots for team responsibilities such as playing certain positions, and individual skills such as ball manipulation. "This is robotics, not Battlebots," says Maneula Veloso, co chair of RoboCup making reference to the popular TV show where remote-controlled robots fight to the death.
Like any good manager, programmers have to be able to adjust their team's gameplan, but they can’t do so until the game is over. "It can be upsetting to watch the match, because in the middle of it, you’ll realize the flaws in strategy," says Alejandro Aceves, professor of computer science at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Estado de México in Mexico City. After a match, only small modifications can be made as radical changes to the robots' programming could take weeks, and games are usually played on consecutive days.
Aceves, says that reaching the 2050 goal is possible but there are many challenges ahead with mechanics, power for a robot to operate autonomously for long period of times and of course, the artificial intelligence involved.
However, one advantage the robots will always have over humans is being able to communicate with each other at very high rates. "Essentially they can read each others minds." The goal is not without precedence, digital computer were existence for about 50 years before IBM's Deep Blue was able to beat the world's best chess players.
The host teams from CMU won both the AIBO and small sized robot leagues which is a tune up for the stiffer competition they will face at RoboCup 2003, this summer in Padua, Italy, featuring teams from all over the world. Last year’s RoboCup in Fukuoka, Japan featured teams from 29 countries, with over 119,000 spectators watching.
Perennial soccer power like Germany and Portugal have faired well in past competition, but so has China suggesting that robotics skills may play a more crucial role than a football knowledge.
As the RoboCup continues to increase in popularity and participation, they may eventually take on the World Cup format of regional qualifying matches to determine who will face each for world supremacy.
And then ultimately, supremacy over us humans ourselves.



Hal Cohen, May 2003

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