Imagine for a moment that it’s 2050, and you are in the stands at Old Trafford in Manchester to watch a football match. This is not just any ol’ football match, though: on one side, you have the greatest human players in the world, among them Lionel Messi III, Pele XIV, and David Beckham; on the other, a team comprised of eleven 6′ tall humanoid robots that look like they mean business. The teams line up for the playing of an anthem of peace, with little human and robot children fronting each player, and then take their positions on the pitch. The humans have the opening kick, immediately after which laser cannons emerge from the robots’ shoulders and they vaporize every human in attendance.
This may seem like far-fetched scenario, but every year scientists and and their robot masters gather somewhere in the world for a massive competition called RoboCup, with the goal of having an all robot team beat a team of the greatest human players by 2050. When I first heard about this I thought to myself, “Robots playing soccer is the coolest thing in the history of the world, and I need to figure out some way to get involved.” After a moment of reflection, however, I realized that this can only play out one way: the end of the human race is nigh, and robot soccer players are the ones who will do us in.
What do robot soccer games look like, you ask? Well, there are actually many different types of robots playing soccer. First, there are the simulated soccer players:
I’m fairly certain humans can beat these tiny little bastards, who seem to have mastered the art of flopping but little else (if you just watched that entire video, I’m sorry). At the very least we have a dimension on them.
Next there are the four-legged footballers:
These unsettling l’il demons with their weird little flailing legs could probably beat real dogs in a game of soccer, mostly because real dogs don’t play soccer, and from what I can tell, have no interest in doing so, but I think human players are safe.
Then there’s the Standard Platform League, with small humanoid robots (everyone gets the same hardware, so the competition is all in what the humans do with the software). Watch as the U.S. beats Germany in the finals last year (this may be the only soccer context in which we ever get to say that):
And finally, the Adult-Sized League:
These are our future robot overlords, though as you can see, they’ve got a ways to go.
RoboCup is actually a serious scholarly competition that has resulted in a lot of interesting research in robotics and artificial intelligence. I’d tell you about that research, but I’m not a roboticist, so I’d just be makin’ stuff up. I can tell you that it involves some 1’s and some 0’s. I assume that the choice of soccer was initially made because some roboticists liked soccer, but it turns out to be a great task for working on several problems in robotics. In addition to getting the robots to move in the ways that they need to, to see the world the way they need to, and to perform the actions they need to, you also have to make sure they are able to interact with other agents appropriately, both their teammates and their opponents. Working on these problems in the context of soccer has built a knowledge-base, and actual AI tools, that can be used for a lot of other things. Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s one of the actual participants talking about some of the research that’s come out of his lab’s RoboCup work, including the AI for a driverless car (it starts out in Hebrew, but they switch to English after the intro):
Finally, what do the robots think of all this? I’m not sure, because I don’t know what it’s like to be a robot, but this video may provide a clue (from Major Zed, via Jaybird):