Goal is to have human-robot game by 2050

Updated: May 10, 2005, 4:34 PM ET
Associated Press

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.

Robot soccer
Revenge of the nerds: Georgia Tech's goalkeeper tries to stop a shot by a Texas robot.

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."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press