Booting up: the University of Freiburg team (left), which won the German Open in June, is defending its world title at RoboCup 2001 in Seattle — where improving artificial intelligence is the goal. Credit: BERNHARD NEBEL, UNIVERSITÄT FREIBURG

The fifth world championships for autonomous soccer-playing robots kicked off in Seattle, Washington, last week at an international meeting of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers. A record number of 120 teams from 25 countries will compete in the RoboCup, which is being held in the United States for the first time.

Soccer is the simplest of sports. But the number of human decisions, physical forces and interactions between them — its number of degrees of freedom — is immense. So it is no surprise that AI researchers and software engineers have homed in on the world's most popular sport as a promising arena for their work.

The tournament will provide them with ample opportunity to demonstrate, compare and improve the complex coordination, navigation and decision-making abilities of different robots. And scientists and spectators alike can get a kick out of it.

The navigational and cognitive skills needed to play soccer are also useful for developing robots to save humans from dangerous situations such as fires or earthquakes, the researchers say. Prototypes of rescue robots and two-legged robots will be on show in Seattle.

Whereas the first generations of robots could only recognize obstacles and get out of their way, today's intelligent machines can perform relatively complex tasks requiring division of labour, make informed choices, and learn from their mistakes.

Whether robots will ever play soccer with any real proficiency remains to be seen. But the organizers of the RoboCup claim that a team of robots will beat the human world champions by the year 2050.