Battle of the robot champions

The 4th Robot Soccer Championships, sponsored by Sony and SGI, is being held in the Melbourne Exhibition Centre this week. An idea for stimulating the development of robots led Dr Hiroaki Kitano to instigate the first RoboCup in Nagoya, Japan four years ago, and since then the annual contest has grown to attract more than 100 teams from 19 countries.

The reigning champion is Iran, with two championships in a row to its credit. Some commentators have remarked that, whereas the other teams are computer fanatics who are building robots that happen to play soccer, the Iranians are soccer fanatics who run a team with members who happen to be robots. Whether it's motivation or mechanical genius, these swift robots from a country not otherwise renowned for its technological prowess are certain to set a strong challenge to the other teams.

Competition is intense but friendly, and in the spirit of open source, the teams share all their secrets with each other at the end of the tournament. The organisers also hope that within 50 years they can field a team of robots that can beat the human world soccer champions.

The world soccer champions can rest easy for the moment, however. The current generation of robots is characterised by slow, often jerky and uncertain movements, and referees frequently have to move the ball to relieve ‘robot lock' -- when the machines get stuck in an indecisive loop. However clumsy today's robot players may be, they can still pass the ball, defend and score goals.

The ultimate goal of the event is to develop robotics for practical applications. The physical and tactical skills required to win a game of soccer can also be applied to practical purposes, such as robots for space exploration, emergency rescue, and more mundane tasks like housecleaning.

The games are also fun to watch, and a hearty cheer erupts from the spectators when a machine makes a good move. If we consider how clumsy a Wright Brothers biplane looks next to a modern jet, perhaps the goal of eventually beating a human team isn't all that unrealistic.

The Grand Finals of the 4th Robot Soccer Championship will be held on Saturday, 3 September 2000. You can watch them on streaming video at the official site, which also hosts background information and highlights from past matches.

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