AI News, Look Out, Beckham: Here Come the Robots

Look Out, Beckham: Here Come the Robots

T-minus 10 minutes till kickoff, and everyone's set to go—the athletes are finishing their warm-up laps and the officials are huddling in pre-game conferences on the sidelines.

Thousands of competitor robots from 36 different countries competed in an array of divisions from ”small” to ”middle-sized” to ”four-legged.” The premise driving the RoboCup, now in its tenth year, is that robotic critical-thinking skills are best honed and demonstrated on pool table-sized playing fields.

The robots converged around the orange ball in a tense semicircle, the goal within striking distance, but then abandoned their strategy, wandering aimlessly like bored kids waiting for a school bus.

”That can interfere with the robots' visual systems.” If the bots can no longer detect the wavelengths of shades they have been precisely trained to recognize—the green of the turf and the orange of the ball, for example—coordinated drives toward the goal lose their momentum.

Before another match, a renegade robot wandered off the field toward the organizers' table, seemingly to greet them—but it was really making a beeline for the nearby orange RoboCup logo banner, which was exactly the same color as the game ball.

”And you can't even think about your artificial intelligence until you've built a robot with perfect balance.” Though false starts were common, the bots could seem invincible when they hit a hot streak, mounting scoring drives capped by hot-dog maneuvers that demonstrate just how far robotics has come in the past decade.

”That's pretty amazing.” Ideally, according to RoboCup president Minoru Asada, this incremental progress will inspire a generation of robots that can face off against human soccer players and win—a highly specific objective, but one that makes sense given how seamlessly robotics innovations can transfer between fields.

Despite marketing efforts to play up the competition's similarities to the World Cup, the RoboCup was dominated by an entirely different kind of intensity—in part because of its beta-test feel, in part because with such lofty technical objectives on the horizon, the identity of this year's winners seemed beside the point.

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