Heads up, World Cup teams: The robots are coming

RoboCup tournament begins this week in Pennsylvania
By KATHY MATHESON, Associated Press Published: July 15, 2014
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— When robots first started playing soccer, it was a challenge for them just to see the ball. And to stay upright.

But the machines participating in this month’s international RoboCup tournament are making passes and scoring points. Their ultimate goal? To beat the human World Cup champs within the next 35 years.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen in 2050, but we are on the right path,” said event co-founder Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

A week after the World Cup title game in Rio de Janeiro, teams from 45 countries will face off at RoboCup about 1,200 miles away in the Brazilian coastal town of Joao Pessoa.

The “players,” which range from life-size humanoids to wheeled objects the size of soccer balls, compete in size-based divisions on miniature indoor fields. The tournament runs from July 19-25.

Organizers say the annual competition isn’t just about creating kicking machines. It’s about teaching the fully autonomous robots to make quick decisions in a changing environment.

Those algorithms can translate off the field into technology like self-driving cars or delivery drones, said University of Pennsylvania engineering professor Dan Lee. RoboCup includes separate contests for service robots and search-and-rescue droids.

Lee, who directs Penn’s robotics lab in Philadelphia, has been the head “coach” of the school’s RoboCup soccer teams since 2002. Back then, the games resembled those played by 5-year-old children, Lee said.

“They would all cluster together,” he said of the robots. “Whoever got the ball would have a hard time figuring out which way to kick the ball.”

Now, it’s like watching 10-year-olds execute basic athletic skills and strategies, said Lee. The battery-powered creatures play much shorter matches — about 20 minutes, compared with 90 minutes in the World Cup — but generally follow the same rules. Humans referee the games, entering their calls into a computer that communicates with the robots.

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For more information about the robots, go online to www.robocup2014.org.

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