Published online 15 June 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060612-9

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Germany thrashes Japan in RoboCup

Heat is on as 10th RoboCup World Championship gets under way.

Lithe, graceful and imbued with exqusite tactical awareness they aren't. But they can kick the ball.Lithe, graceful and imbued with exqusite tactical awareness they aren't. But they can kick the ball.© Empics/Picture by: JOERG SARBACH/AP/EMPICS

They are not quite as elegant and fleet of foot as David Beckham, Ronaldinho or Zinedine Zidane (and not as sexy either, unless you have strange tastes). But the high-tech performers taking the field for the 10th RoboCup World Championship from 14-20 June are making steady advances when it comes to imitating the icons of the world's most popular sport.

A record number of entrants, 440 teams from 36 countries, have come to Bremen, Germany, to compete in the various leagues of the tournament: some on two legs, others on four feet and yet more on various combinations of wheels. And although only one team can win the real-life FIFA World Cup in Germany, there will be 33 world champions at the end of the robot competition.

RoboCup was first envisioned in 1990 by Japanese scientist Hiroaki Kitano, then a guest researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bored with the limited performance of early robots, he was looking for a symbolic, easily recognizable and appealing goal within artificial intelligence (AI) research.

Today the competition attracts scientists, AI fans and journalists in large crowds. Robot soccer is a lot about sport and fun. But, says Martin Riedmiller, a neuro-informaticist at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, it also gives scientists a way to test and improve the learning ability of AI software. Autonomous robots could be used for a variety of purposes, from disaster rescue to housekeeping, and from medical to military.

On me 'ead, son

Riedmiller is the coach and chief scientist of the Osnabrück's "Brainstormers Tribots". The team consists of four wheeled robots, which, once switched on, act fully autonomously. Thirty times a second a video camera, their 'eye', captures an image of the situation and sends it to an onboard laptop that serves as the robot's 'brain'. The image is then processed by the player's vision system to extract information about the position and velocities of all objects in the 12-by-8-metre playing area.

“The quality of playing has advanced tremendously.”

Martin Riedmiller,
University of Osnarbrück

Depending on their own position, and on the respective positions of their team-mates, opponents and the ball (a full-sized, yellow leather football), the robot then calculates the next step and acts accordingly.

"The quality of playing has advanced tremendously," says Riedmiller. "Not only are the robots now capable of kicking the ball high, they also have developed a sense for tactics and the different roles of attackers and defenders."

The robots are capable of learning how to improve and interact more efficiently. To that end, they use a human-like system of trial and error involving almost indefinite degrees of freedom, corresponding to the countless possibilities of moving and behaving in a given match situation.

In the net

Simple and complex at once, football is appealing to AI researchers, says Riedmiller. "The rules are easy. But unlike chess computers, soccer robots must analyse fuzzy and fast-changing sensor data in real time, while at the same time try to sensibly interact with their team and the environment."

Riedmiller's team is more advanced than many of its competitors in coming around such problems. This year, the Brainstormers are one of the favourites in the middle-sized league for 'players' up to 50 centimetres in diameter and weighing no more than 40 kilograms. In its opening match the team thrashed its Japanese rivals, the 2005 champion team 'Eigen', by five goals to nil. Its main opponents on the road to glory are now the Free University of Berlin's 'FU-Fighters', although pundits refuse to rule out promising newcomers from Japan, the Netherlands and Portugal.

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Most AI and computer scientists agree that robot football is a good way to push the limits of the field. But fans following human teams are not yet convinced that the robots have mastered the finer points of the beautiful game. "Do your robots commit fouls, and do they know what offside is, are some of the more friendly critical remarks we sometimes hear in public," says Riedmiller.

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University of Osnarbrück