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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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.