It’s been nearly a month since Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder in a stadium in Brazil (or, in Suarez's words "suffered the physical result of a bite in the collusion he suffered with me"). But this week, just a little more than a hundred miles south of where that game took place, one Iranian soccer-playing robot in RoboCup—the World Cup for robots—malfunctioned, falling on top of one of its Indonesian opponents and ripping off its arm.
Fouls work a little differently at RoboCup, which for the past 17 years has invited teams of roboticists from all over the globe to pit their soccer-playing machines against one another. This year, the competition is taking place in a Brazilian conference center with a manmade pond and a building shaped like a space-age beard trimmer, where 2,200 human participants (and thousands more spectators) will finish competing for RoboCup titles today.
Unlike the FIFA World Cup, Robocup offers multiple awards for various robot categories. Within the humanoid robot games alone, matches among kid-, teen-, and adult-sized contenders remain separate categories. But Robocup robots don’t just play soccer. Some bots are also there to compete in a variety of tasks—like artificial intelligence matches and home rescue scenarios.
To capture a snippet of what’s going down on the ground, I caught up with Sean Luke, a professor of computer science at George Mason University and long-time RoboCup participant. He was in Brazil with three PhD students and four kid-size humanoid robots called RoboPatriots. Unique from many of the other projects on display, Luke and team members Drew Wicke, David Freelan, and Stephen Arnold brought the robots down to Brazil without pre-programmed software. Instead, two days before the competition, the George Mason team used a machine-learning program to teach the robots soccer, lessons that the bots then applied in their matches with machines from France and Iran. In the games, humans don't control the bots—the machines have to figure out how to collaborate and get the ball past the goal posts on their own.
According to Luke, making humanoid robots play soccer is still very much a struggle for most teams. "If you can walk faster than other people without falling over, you’ve got a major advantage," Freelan adds. Humanoid robots also sometimes have trouble identifying their own teammates. Because both goal posts are the same yellow hue, robots can end up forgetting their allegiances and kick balls into their own goal box.
Accidents also happen, like when the aforementioned Team Baset robot from Iran amputated Team Eros bot's arm (see top video above). Luckily, Luke notes, Team Eros, from Indonesia, was able to reattach the limb during halftime.
But even if robots are still overcoming hurdles in their soccer playing, RoboCup Federation president-elect Itsuki Noda says he was most pleased to watch robots tackle this year’s rescue task. "The mission of the robot is to find sick people in their homes and find the closest hospital," Noda says. "This is a very hard task, [but] some teams have succeeded."
RoboCup robots have a history of commercial success, too. Cornell University’s early RoboCup competitors served as the inspiration for the middle-size, Roomba-like bots of Kiva Systems, a company eventually acquired by Amazon for $775 million. Robotis, a winner of the 2011 RoboCup, also manufactures robotic arms for people with limited mobility.
To watch the rest of the competition’s progress, click here.