The Evolution of Robot Soccer

Robots have evolved very rapidly over the past five years, and by 2050, whipping humans at soccer isn't likely to be a problem

2 min read
The Evolution of Robot Soccer

This is the official goal of the RoboCup soccer competition:

"By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, complying with the official rule[s] of the FIFA [Fédération Internationale de Football Association], against the winner of the most recent World Cup."

We've seen a lot of improvement over the last few years, but nothing that compares to the skills that the new version of ASIMO recently displayed. And RoboCup itself isn't far behind.

Here's the old version of ASIMO kicking a soccer ball:

And here's the new version of ASIMO kicking a soccer ball:

Approximate elapsed time: 5 years.

ASIMO, of course, costs a ton of money and has the corporate support of Honda. But watching RoboCup competitions themselves, you can see improvement that's almost as dramatic, albeit with a delay commensurate with the amount of time and money that can be invested in what's ultimately a hobby/research for most of the teams involved. For example, take a look at these next two clips, showing how RoboCup itself has evolved over about the same period of time, starting with the 2007 RoboCup final:

Now, the 2011 final:

It's not just that the robots themselves are physically more capable, but they're also smarter, with brains that are exponentially more effective. This exponential improvement seems likely to continue, too, as hobby robotics piggybacks off of recent advancements made in mobile computing, gaming, and the associated hardware.

It may seem like we still have a long ways to go, but if we take "mid-21st century" to mean 2050, that's 38 years from now, and now was 38 years from 1974 (!). Here's a picture of what a computer looked like in 1974:

Could anyone have predicted back then how incredibly capable and integral to our society that computers are now? I doubt it, and if they did, they were probably called crazy by their contemporaries. Look at that 1974 advertisement for a US $3,000 computer with 4K of RAM, and now try and picture what the robots of 2050 will look like. And whatever you're imagining, I can virtually guarantee that reality is going to be much more awesome, and that "destroying" humans at soccer (complying with the official FIFA rules, of course) is going to be one of the least impressive things about the robots of our future. What do you think?

[ RoboCup ]


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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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