09:03 AM

Goal! Soccer Robots Test Their Metal At RoboCup

They may guzzle 10W-30 instead of beer, but the robots who take the field in this international soccer competition are as serious about winning as are flesh-and-blood humans.

Germany defeated Poland in one-to-nothing nailbiter in the World Cup in Dortmund yesterday, while Spain crushed the Ukraine four-to-nothing in Leipzig. Meanwhile, in Bremen, R2D2 took the field against C3PO in a hotly contested match.

The 2006 RoboCup, a huge international soccer tournament bringing together 440 teams from 36 countries, began yesterday in the German city known for Beck's lager and its town musicians. But while the players on the field of the official World Cup of Soccer are flesh-and-blood humans, the contestants in the RoboCup are, well, robots.

Far from being a curious sideshow riding the coattails of the main event being played in the great stadiums of Germany's largest cities, the RoboCup is about pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and robotics. According to RoboCup Federation vice president Hans-Dieter Burkhard, cybernetic soccer is really all about serious research. "After 50 years of research within artificial intelligence, it has been determined that these things can be better researched using soccer than the game of chess," he said in a statement.

And the comparison to chess is hardly an accident. Anyone whose skin crawled when IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov a decade ago will feel a deep chill at the RoboCup federation's ultimate goal: to beat humans at their own beautiful game. The ultimate goal of the tournament is to stimulate robotics and AI research to the point that researchers will be able to field a fully autonomous team of humanoid robots against a human squad by 2050.

"For the coming decade, RoboCup 2006 is the first step towards a communal vision," RoboCup Federation president Minoru Asada said in a statement. "This vision includes the development of a humanoid robot team of eleven players, which can win against a human soccer world champion team."

There are five "leagues" in the tournament, for small robots, medium-sized robots, large four-legged robots, two-legged humanoid robots and a simulation league that features no robots at all, only computer-generated players. The leagues will play for the next four days, culminating in finals on Sunday.

Although the real stars are the researchers and engineers who have devised cunning machines to play a simple game of kick-ball, when the action begins, it's all down to the automata to do their thing. And any kid who has ever played house league soccer can tell you that, all appearances aside, there is nothing simple about the game. That's as true for machines as it is for people.

"Once the whistle has blown the robots have to move autonomously over the field -- that means without remote control -- on wheels, on four or two legs, or as virtual players," Bremen University Center for Computing Technologies researcher Ubbo Visser said in a statement. "They have to know as exactly as possible where they are at any time, have to follow the movements of other players and the ball, and react to these in an appropriate way."

The RoboCup isn't all fun-and-games, however. Following the tournament, and once the robot soccer world champions have been toasted -- presumably with 10W-30 -- researchers will sit down for a two-day symposium on robotics. Papers will cover a gamut of subjects, from "Imitative Reinforcement Learning for Soccer Playing Robots" to "Using Temporal Consistency to Improve Robot Localisation." A major component of the conference will discuss the application of robotics to search and rescue.

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