RoboCup: Cute World Champions

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Artificially intelligent machines have already spoiled a lot of games for us, just think of chess, checkers and Go. But there is one not insignificant pastime where we humans will long remain the victors.

Soccer world champion after a penalty shootout – what could be more perfect. The team “B-Human” from the German Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) and the University of Bremen won the final of this year’s RoboCup. The now six-times world champion was taking part in robot-crazy Japan with eleven cute NAO robots from Softbank Robotics

that weigh around 5 kilograms and stand just under 60 cm tall. The current NAO V5 version has servomotors controlling 25 joints: eleven in the legs and twelve in both arms. The remaining two move the head, which houses a 1.6 GHz Intel ATOM Z530 processor. Vision is provided at 30 frames a second by two HD cameras, and the battery lasts for 90 minutes, just enough for a conventional soccer game. At present, Conrad Electronics would charge you 6895 euros for the NAO Evolution Academic Edition, but even then it is only supplied to schools, universities and other educational institutions.

RoboCup between tradition and modernity

Choosing Nagoya as the venue means that the robot tournament has now returned to the place where it started 20 years ago. Just as it was then, the RoboCup is still opened to the sound of thousand-year-old taiko drums. And that is just what makes the country’s charm so vibrant: ancient traditions alongside absolute modernity.

But as regards the Robos’ soccer-playing skills, a lot has changed over the last twenty years. Then it could more accurately have been called “stand-still soccer” – there is much more movement in the game now.

By 2050, the plan is for a robot team to beat the “real” world champions in a big final. Scientists’ eternal dream is for technology to outsmart humans. What happened twenty years ago to chess and last year to Go is much more difficult in soccer. For a start, team sports, with all their imponderables, present an incomparably more difficult problem. And then there is the physical aspect. Will a robo-goalie ever be able to snatch a ball from the top corner of the net and then land safely?

Here, as so often, and especially in Buddhist Japan, the path remains the goal. Apart from the NAO robots, the B-Human team is made up of students from the University of Bremen and their assistants. They are learning to develop robust real-time software for a highly demanding environment. After every world championship the software is also published, so that others can benefit from it.

Even though it is not always possible to see from the sidelines how the soccer robots have progressed, that does not mean that they have not improved inside. After all, even top-ranking human players do not always show their full potential. As the saying goes.


RoboCup 2017 (Image: Universitaet Bremen/DFKI  Peter Schulz)

Soccer robots raising a sweat on the field. (Image: University of Bremen/DFKI, Peter Schulz)