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."
Pushing Past the Pee-Wee League
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.
Tricked-Out Teamwork ...
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.
CMDash05, the Carnegie Mellon team using the Sony AIBOS this year, say it has managed to create "artificial intelligence" routines to accomplish tough soccer tasks.
"Passing is difficult, [but] receiving the ball is hard," says Veloso. "It's not just that the robot has to see the ball pass by, but has to intercept it. For a pass-receive to be effective, this is not a trivial thing."
Veloso also said that her team of programmers has developed "other tricks" that she wouldn't disclose prior to the upcoming competitions. But she hinted that a lot of the algorithms developed by her graduate students had to do with ironing out other teamwork issues -- including adapting the robots to use "plays" or specific formations.
"All the other teams [in previous years] used the same formations," says Veloso. But "CMDash05 [robots] will be able to use different formations against different teams."
... Just Don't Overdo It
But for all the increase in power and capabilities available to them, developers say there are still major hurdles to solving the problem of teamwork among robots.
For one, better artificial intelligence routines could become too powerful, causing robots to spend more time analyzing and communicating with each other rather than reacting to the situations around them.
"If we are … in some team environment like playing basketball, you jump without asking first because you probably understand you're closest to get the ball. You implicitly understand that your teammates won't waste their effort in duplication," says Veloso. "With robots we have to program that or they will spend too much time communicating, and miss the opportunity [to act]. How much should they negotiate, how much is [left to] opportunity … those are still things we need to figure out."
But figuring out those hurdles will mean more research and funding -- something that the United States isn't pursuing as aggressively as other countries, says Veloso.
"You have to realize that the amount of robot development [in other countries] is orders of magnitude higher than here in the U.S.," says Veloso. "They [Japanese organizers] are developing Robocup in Japan and they are expecting more than 200,000 people to come. This is like their [national] passion that we can only imagine."
And that, she says, is putting her teams -- and the United States overall -- at distinct disadvantages.
"In 2002, we won Robocup and we're first in the U.S. [RoboCup competitions]. But last year, we lost to the German team," says Veloso. "They had 40 people working on their robots -- 10 students per robot. I have seven. So everything we do is on a much smaller effort and scale."
Still, the good news is that popular and research interest in America is gaining traction. Automated vehicles such as the Predator unmanned spy plane and iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner have made their way into the minds and lexicon of the public.
And more colleges and companies are joining the robotics race. Spelman College, with funding from the Coca-Cola Company and NASA, for example, will be the first U.S. undergraduate research team comprised entirely of black women to enter the international RoboCup competition.
Such sparks bode well for increased awareness and attention to robotics research -- one of the primary goals of RoboCup.
Robots versus Humans in 2050?
Still, professional athletes like David Beckham and Freddie Adu won't have much to worry about for quite some time.
For now, even the best RoboCup players can't play a soccer game that meets regulations put forth by Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA. Most RoboCup matches, for example, are just two 10-minute halves rather than the two 30-minute halves of a regulation game. And while the larger "humanoid league" of RoboCup competitors may resemble and act like human athletes, matches among "bipedal autonomous robots" are limited to a two-versus-two game rather than a full field of 11 players.
But researchers say the robots are catching up -- and well within the goal of being able to play against human opponents in a FIFA-regulated game by 2050.