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Goal is to have human-robot game by 2050

5/10/2005

ATLANTA -- It looked like a scene from a sci-fi flick.

Hugging the sideline, the robot dog waddled down the field and hit a ball with its nose. The ball bounced off the goal post.

It was one of the University of Texas' last chances to get back in the game, which it eventually lost 2-0 to the reigning European champs from Dortmund University in Germany.

Just like in real soccer, the Germans seem to play a brand of robot dog soccer superior to the American teams on the pitch.

Robot dog soccer is one of five games that teams of scholars competed in during the 2005 RoboCup U.S. Open at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The aim of the three-day competition, which ended Tuesday, is to develop software for better robots with
the long-term goal of fielding a robot soccer team good enough to
play a human team by 2050.

"We want to play the best humans versus the best robots," said Alan Wagner, a doctoral student in computer science and artificial intelligence at Georgia Tech.

Four of the competition's events are soccer-based. The fifth is
a search-and-rescue event in which teams remotely control robots to
find victims in a collapsed building in a simulated disaster
scenario.

The soccer games varied. One involved humans riding two-wheeled Segways -- electric scooters for use by pedestrians -- playing with robotic Segway teammates in two-on-two competitions. Another featured nimble and boxy 5-inch-high robots forcibly firing a ball
about the size of a golf ball across the field. Another was
computer-simulated soccer.

By far, the most popular sport was robot dog soccer, which
employs two teams of four computer-programmed Sony Aibos. There are
no remote controls.

The dogs by default are programmed to act like pets, but when
programmers insert the memory sticks, the computer canines search
for the ball with the cameras in their noses, chase it, silently
communicate with each other over wireless Ethernet, and ultimately
try to put the apple-sized ball into the goal. The dog playing
goalkeeper is programmed separately and only guards the goal.

In a way, the 3½-pound, breadbox-sized robots are like real dogs. They're kind of cute. They come alive with a pat on the head,
then bounce around and stretch. They even misbehave, unexpectedly
running off the field at times -- much to their programmers'
chagrin.

The game is a lot like real soccer, too. The 19-foot field has
goal boxes and a center circle. There are penalties for pushing and
obstruction.

Georgia Tech's Wagner said the German universities take the game
more seriously than the Americans. Georgia Tech has six students
working a few hours a week on the robot dog software, while trying
to juggle classwork and research. Conversely, the Germans have
about 20 students working 20 hours or more a week -- and they're
sponsored by Microsoft.

"There's a world of difference between the teams that are not
very good and the teams that are really, really good," Wagner
said.

After the win over Texas, the four German dogs gesturing as if
they were flexing their biceps -- which they were programmed to do,
of course.

While the competition offers a welcome respite for the students,
RoboCup U.S. Open chairman Tucker Balch said the competition has
real world applications.

While technology for batteries, motors and computer processors
has rapidly advanced over the last decade -- thanks mostly to the
rising popularity of laptops and cell phones -- the software to
efficiently control all those components has yet to be mastered,
said Balch, who also is an assistant professor of computing at
Georgia Tech.

"RoboCup is primarily organized to drive software that will
make really aware robots possible," Balch said. "Soccer provides
a really nice testing environment. Everyone understands soccer so
we don't have to explain what they're trying to do."