The robots in the RoboCup could be a match for any World Cup team by 2050 if they continue to develop at the current rate.
As the cream of footballing talent from around the globe begins to collect at the Cape of Good Hope for the 2010 World Cup, many fans will be scanning the media for pundits' predictions on the most likely winner of the coveted trophy on 11 July. But in years to come - within many of our lifetimes - there could well be another match to play after the final. The World Champions against robots.
Well, why not? Chess champions pit their wits against the best in electronic logic, and as physical and tactical robotics evolves, a metal 11 is tantalisingly feasible.
The prime driver for this sporting possibility is the RoboCup international robotics competition. Founded in 1997, its official aim is that, by 2050, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players will play against the winner of the most recent World Cup under the rules of football's governing body FIFA - and win.
Given the growth in popularity of the competition since its inception, that deadline looks reasonable. Last year, for example, more than 400 teams and nearly 2,500 participants from around the world battled it out at the finals in Austria, with more expected in the finals next month in Singapore.
RoboCup currently has four major competitions, not all of which are soccer-related, and various football leagues that include virtual teams of robots in 2D and 3D simulation, as well as classes of different sized physical robots of humanoid and other shapes and designs. There is also a competition for youngsters of primary and secondary school age, called RoboCupJunior, which again includes non-football contests and different leagues.
As such, different leagues have different rules, and different issues surrounding the design, construction and number of robots deployed. Broadly though, the robots must be designed and built from scratch by the teams - although base kits or complete robots can be bought for some leagues - and they must be autonomous, with no external control during a game.
Like many countries, the UK fields a number of teams across the leagues, and two in particular - the University of Hertfordshire's Bold Herts and the team being fielded by pupils at the Prenton High School for Girls in Birkenhead - show just how contrasting the backgrounds of the teams can be, yet how similar their approaches to the contest are.
Bold Herts, which narrowly missed out on top spot in the 3D Simulation finals in Austria, was founded in 2002 by Dr Daniel Polani and consists of a team of computer scientists led by PhD student Sander van Dijk. As Dr Polani is quick to point out, the competition is not just about playing football.
'This work has a serious mission to feed into the commercial, education and scientific arenas. It's a bit like the Apollo space programme, where the advantages of the work were often indirect. With RoboCup though, the overarching desire is to develop a truly autonomous algorithm.
'Ultimately we want this technology to feed into the ability to build, say, household robots, and the fact that [in our league] there are 11 players on the 'pitch' that all have to be coordinated creates such a rich and varied set of challenges to overcome that football is an ideal testing arena,' he says.
The team fields virtual robots configured to model the dynamics and appearance of the Nao physical robot from French company Aldebaran Robotics, and these play against other virtual teams in a Linux-based simulator running on ODE and developed by the league itself. The simulator can be considered a 'video game' for the AI control software, which Bold Herts writes in C++, and which links into the simulator and lets teams play against each other under even conditions.
Matches in this league can therefore be played remotely, E F but as Dr Polani explains, 'It's far better to attend the actual events because you can meet other teams and exchange ideas, for example, and see what the hardware teams are doing. It also enables the programming code to be refined between rounds to take account of changes in tactics and so on - in much the same way as a real-world football manager might make player substitutions.'
Player coordination is clearly the key, and Dr Polani says this brings a multitude of challenges. 'First, there is walking stably, which is already difficult,' he says. 'Falling down costs time, so it's a priority to get fast but stable walking for the virtual robots. Then there's kicking or catching the ball, positioning yourself close enough for friendly passes but not too close to be entangled by an opponent and far enough to cover ground for attack or retreat - and much more.
'This is just a flavour of the things humans do naturally but which AIs and robots have to be pre-programmed - 'micromanaged' - to know how to do. Personally I would consider it the Holy Grail of AI to have the software figure out on its own what and how to learn the different issues, with only minor 'nudges' by humans, similar to manager giving occasional advice, but this is a big challenge,' he says.
By playing in one of the simulation leagues, however, Bold Herts does enjoy certain advantages. 'In simulation the robots don't break, they're easier to run and you can run many more than in other leagues. The cost is lower too.'
Cost is an important factor for the Prenton High School for Girls team as well, as is - of course - education. The school is for 11 to 16 year-olds, and therefore competes in RoboCupJunior (RCJ), the emphasis of which is less on competition and more on education. That said, however, Prenton is currently UK champion (in a non-football category), and is fielding teams in the football leagues, which are 'hardware-only', for the first time this year.
'Robotics is not on the curriculum but the work is massively cross-curricular,' says physics teacher and RoboCup supremo at the school John O'Neil. 'The school is a specialist science college so this work is perfect for the pupils.'
Although it doesn't push robotics onto the students, the school does actively promote it, he says. 'We start simply at first, with a summer school for Year 7s [end of first year at the school] making robotic Venus Flytraps using a sensor and a motor, to introduce them to the idea of control. We then increase the complexity so that, by Year 9, pupils have a grounding in robotics.'
This may be the 'junior' league but the rules governing autonomy and original design still apply. 'In the competition the girls are separated from their teachers/mentors, so they have to solve their own problems there and then,' O'Neil says. 'So rather than tell the girls what to do during the design phase we get them to focus on what they want to do, and teach them a lot of problem-solving in the process.
'This isn't about kids playing with toys; it's very much the real world of robotics, and the girls have to design the robots for all eventualities,' he says. 'For example, the lighting in the competition arena may be different from that in the school setting, or a robot's onboard compass could be thrown out of kilter by its proximity to other robots, so these things have to be re-calibrated by the girls on the spot.
'The girls are highly self-motivated volunteers,' he adds, 'and they love the chance of beating the boys at football.'
O'Neil adds that the hardware typically starts with a Lego Mindstorms kit, which comes with a four-input controller chip, the NXT, and programming software. 'The NXT environment is better for the younger kids as it's a more graphical, pictorially based system. Because of this, although the girls are always refining the algorithms they don't actually realise that this is what they're doing,' he says.
Despite their success, O'Neil says the girls are limited by what the programming can do, although keeping things simple keeps costs down. Even so, the girls have found a way of doubling up the colour, touch and other sensors to raise the number of inputs to eight. 'And the sensors themselves don't have to be expensive,' he adds. 'We've used some that cost only 15p, and the girls have also built their own tilt switches using copper sulphate. It's all about adaptation.'
Hopes are high then for the girls in Singapore, and they're already fundraising for 2011 and Istanbul.
Bill Shankly, legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club, once said, 'Football isn't about life and death - it's more important than that.' Clearly that sentiment lives on.