Picture this: it’s World Cup 2050. The preliminaries are over and the two finalists are facing each other in the first-place game. Onto the field trot two teams–but only one of them is human. The other is made up of robots.

Today we’re accustomed to robots that do everything from build cars to defuse bombs and explore other planets. Ten years ago, Alan Mackworth, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, wondered “Why shouldn’t they play soccer, too?” He mentioned the idea in a paper entitled “On Seeing Robots.”

At about the same time, a group of Japanese researchers organized a workshop on “Grand Challenges in Artificial Intelligence.” That workshop led to serious discussions of using the game of soccer to promote robot research, and in June of 1993, a group of researchers decided to launch a robotic soccer competition. Originally conceived as a purely Japanese project, it proved so intriguing to researchers from around the world that it became international and was dubbed the Robot World Cup Initiative, or RoboCup for short. Its stated objective is to field a team of humanoid robots by 2050 capable of defeating the reigning World Cup champions.

The first RoboCup competition was held in 1997. It drew more than 40 teams and more than 5,000 spectators. The robots were clumsy wheeled devices that had trouble even finding the ball. The latest edition of RoboCup, held this month in Fukuoka, Japan, drew 193 teams from 30 countries, and included competitions not only for wheeled robots (much more agile, faster and much better at ball-tracking), but four-legged robots (variations of Sony’s Aibo robot dog), soccer-playing software, and, for the first time, humanoid robots.

The humanoid robots, or androids, tended to look like spacesuited astronauts, since they were typically bulky, white, and carry their computer brains in large backpacks. They used rules not that much different from the ones used in human soccer, trotting along a carpeted field and shoving a ball into a goal. The could even get yellow-carded for pushing another player.

Soccer is a great test of robot capabilities for the same reason it’s a great test of human ones. A soccer player has to know where he is at all times in relationship to other players, the ball and the goal, project what the other players might do, figure out how to counter the other team’s actions or assist his own team, calculate the best way to get the ball into the goal–and, of course, be physically capable acting on those calculations. It’s hard enough for humans; it’s nearly impossible for robots at this stage of their development.

But that’s the whole point. Far from being frivolous, RoboCup is a serious research project that gives scientists the opportunity to exchange ideas, display the latest robot control techniques, improve artificial intelligence and more. The goal of beating the World Cup champions of 2050 with a team of robots is spurring robot development just as the goal of landing humans on the moon in the 1960s spurred the development of manned space flight–and a host of related technologies.

Of course, RoboCup is also an enormous crowd pleaser, which makes it an effective public relations tool, a chance for researchers put their work on display and get it noticed by the public and funding agencies.

Is RoboCup’s 2050 deadline realistic? Well, researchers admit it’s a long shot, but it doesn’t really matter: even if robot players can’t beat humans by mid-century, the attempt will lead to other robots that can do far more useful things–carry out search and rescue operations, for instance, or help around the house (something one RoboCup competitor, Peter Nordin of Goteborg, Sweden, thinks is a possibility within a decade).

Soccer playing isn’t an end in itself, but a means to an end: a fully autonomous mechanical creature capable of serving humans as a worker, companion, entertainer, and who knows what else.

One Japanese researcher, Kazuo Yoshida, says he believes robots must someday be able to tell the difference between good and evil, and harbor a sense of their own purpose–at which point we’ll have to ask the question: are they any different from us?

But that’s a long way away. Even if robots are fated to someday become our equals–or our superiors–for the moment, at least, we can take comfort in the fact that they still play a lousy game of soccer.

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