When Your Next Opponent Is A Robot

A glimpse of what recreational sports might be like one day

RoboCup China, 2014

At least for now, you probably have a height and weight advantage. These soccer-playing robots fall well-short of being life-sized. But they can play the game (well, not really; they can kick a ball and know where the goal is).

They are, though, a step along a (very long) road whose intended destination is a team of humanoid robots that can beat the human soccer world champions by 2050.

These precursors of that mighty championship team were showing off their moves at China's annual robotics competition which opened today. RoboCup China, a soccer tournament for robots, was one of the main attractions.

Some 2,000 robot makers from universities and colleges across the country showcased their creations' skills. The event, held in Hefei, provincial capital of Anhui in eastern China, is a dry run for next year's RoboCup Worlds, which the city will be hosting. This year's tournament, like its human counterpart, was staged in Brazil.

The Robot Soccer World Cup, to give the competition its full title, has been run annually since 1997. Atlanta and Seattle are the two U.S. cities that have hosted it.

The Brazil tournament attracted more than 400 teams from some 45 countries. Nine came from the U.S. These ranged from Carnegie Mellon University's CM Dragons to the University of Pennsylvania's UPennalizers and the University of Southern California's now unfortunately named Information Sciences Institute's Synthetics (ISIS).

For now, robot athletes are more comical than challenging, as this video from a RoboCup national tournament played in Holland in 2013 shows:

Watching that makes you think that a team that could be competitive with humans at any sport is a pipe dream, even for 2050. But, who knows, given the rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence that are being made?

Who would have thought 35 years ago that a robot would be built that can drive itself around a city unaided by humans. But Google has done it with its self-driving car.

Robots for sports training seem highly feasible. We have long had mechanical pitching arms for baseball batting practice. A prototype shot-stopping goal keeping robot was shown off at the Cebit gaming exhibition in 2011.

There are table-tennis-playing robots, one of which gave a former world number one a good game — until the human deployed his superior gamesmanship. Machine intelligence alone only takes you so far in sports.

There is also a robot that can cycle. One day, your running partner may not be virtual but an indefatigable humanoid. And lost or stranded hikers and climbers may welcome the arrival of robot rescue teams.

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