- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

TOKYO — Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo won't have to worry about his job just yet. Not until 2050 do organizers of RoboCup a World Cup for robots that kicked off Wednesday in Japan hope to field a squad of humanoids capable of defeating the human soccer champions.
"When I watch Ronaldo's moves, our goal seems pretty hopeless," Osaka University robotics professor Minoru Asada said. "But the spirit of RoboCup is one of challenge."
RoboCup 2002 is expected to add to the hoopla surrounding the ongoing concurrent global soccer championship in Japan and South Korea. Robocup is drawing 193 robot teams from 30 countries to the southern city of Fukuoka.
A rare pop-cultural outlet for science, RoboCup intends to spread the word about robotics a technology already deemed useful for less sporty situations such as disaster rescue, space exploration and nuclear plant cleanup.
The rules aren't much different from human soccer. The robots scuttle along a carpeted pitch and shove a ball into a goal. An aggressive push may draw a yellow card. Missing elements include the offside rule and robot hooligans.
The first RoboCup, six years ago, featured a handful of teams operating temperamental and sluggish box-shaped robots on wheels. This year, a dozen teetering human-shaped robots are taking part for the first time. But don't expect much more from them than penalty kicks.
Besides the humanoids, RoboCup has four other leagues, two of them for wheeled bots. In the simulation league, programmers play virtual soccer. Then there's the four-legged league, which pits teams made up of Sony Corp.'s doglike Aibos.
To play soccer, robots must first figure out where they are, scan the scene with digital cameras and calculate their moves.
The robots are not remotely controlled. They must be programmed to think for themselves.
"You have all the factors that are a real challenge to robotics," says Bernhard Hengst, a doctorate student at the University of New South Wales in Australia and champion in the last two RoboCups in the Aibo league.
The university has introduced innovations such as making the doglike robots shuffle around on their elbows, enhancing stability and control.
But the tournament is more than fun and games.
The researchers see the gathering previously held in Nagoya, Paris, Stockholm, Melbourne and Seattle as a serious opportunity for exchanging ideas.
More than winning, scholars seek to display techniques their teams have developed to control robots more precisely, said Raffaello D'Andrea, engineering professor at Cornell University, one of the U.S. contestants.
Among the concepts being tested are whether robots can "learn" and adjust their programming.
Kazuo Yoshida, professor of system-design engineering at Keio University, believes the future lies in building robots capable of grasping the difference between good and evil, machines that can even harbor a sense of purpose.
"In the past, robots only needed to be able to do set things," said Mr. Yoshida. "More and more, people are looking for robots that are prepared for the unpredictable."
Peter Nordin, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg, Sweden, predicts humanoids of the type he was fielding at RoboCup will become household companions in a decade, probably at prices cheaper than a car.
Today, however, the simplest act remains a tremendous challenge for any robot.
At the University of Tokyo, one robot takes several hours to clear a dinner table and looks more like a construction crane than a human.
To walk, such a robot must be programmed to bend down its mechanical joints at certain angles to fractions of a degree.
"The human walk is smooth," said Hiroyuki Ishii, a Waseda University student whose wobble-walking humanoid named Ninja is competing in RoboCup.
In other words, fancy robot dribbling is some years off.
But the day robots and humans finally face off on a soccer field, Hiroaki Kitano, one of the Japanese scientists behind RoboCup, has no doubt who will win.
Because they won't tire and will be programmed to make all penalty kicks and never to commit fouls, robots will eventually prevail, Mr. Kitano says.
But don't despair, humans.
"Even if robots beat the human champions, the technology was achieved by many researchers through long years of work," he said.
"In the end, it's a human victory."

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