The robots are coming. And like a page from a scary science-fiction story, they are indeed ready to do some serious kicking.
But thankfully, they'll only be aiming at soccer balls, rather than their human creators.
On Wednesday, more than 400 research teams from more than 35 countries will converge on Osaka, Japan, for RoboCup 2005. As in the previous eight international competitions, scientists and developers will show off their latest attempts at developing teams of robots that can compete against others in a game of football -- or soccer, as it's more commonly referred to in the United States.
While images of gangs of automatons -- some shaped like toy robot dogs -- furiously chasing after a colorful ball may seem like pure entertainment, robotics researchers say it isn't just about fun and games. If developers can create the computer and mechanical tools that allow machines to automatically perform effectively as a team, a whole new world of robots may arise.
For example, one day "search and rescue" robot teams may be able to comb through buildings wrecked by earthquakes searching for survivors. If one sensor-equipped robot detects what might be a victim, it could automatically direct another robot -- say, one with a built-in, powerful lifting tool -- to come to its aid and save the human.
"There's always a need for teamwork when it comes to certain tasks," says Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and faculty adviser behind one of the U.S. teams competing in Osaka. "Because they [RoboCup robots] are a team, they could perform beautiful things cooperatively."
But while the concept of teamwork may be something even a child may be able to grasp, getting robots to understand such concepts hasn't been easy. In fact, the early RoboCup competitions were similar to teams of pee-wee soccer leagues comprised of human 6-year-olds: every robot went after the ball, regardless of whether it was playing offense or defense.
Fast-forward nine years to the upcoming competition and researchers say today's robo-teams have graduated beyond the Saturday afternoon kiddie clubs -- thanks in part to the rapid advances in computer and mechanical technology.
One class of RoboCup competitors -- the "four-legged" league -- is based on a commercially available toy robot, Sony's $2,000 AIBO dog. Researchers such as Veloso note that the new AIBOs are a vast improvement over the first AIBOs released in 1999.
"The robots from Sony are much more robust. The legs are more sturdy, the joints and motors are better," says Veloso. "Things just happen at a much faster pace."
Improved sensors -- such as the improved infrared camera that "sees" objects -- and built-in wireless communication gear ease the development of soccer-playing robots. The robo-dogs, for example, are able to determine by themselves where the ball is on the field and which of the others -- both teammates and rival players -- are closest to it.
And by creating more powerful algorithms or software code to take advantage of these capabilities, computer scientists and robot developers believe the teams will perform remarkably better than previous years.