Danger, Will Robinson
On the Pitch and On the Track: Keeping Up with Japan's Most Athletic Robots
In Japan, supersmart robots commonly entertain fans by engaging in wrestling matches (about 100 motorized creatures took part in the recent Robot Wrestling Festival in Kawasaki), shooting baskets (a staple of Japanese TV variety shows) and even playing soccer matches. Thus it made sense that RoboCup '97, the world's first robot soccer tournament, was held in Nagoya late last month as part of the four-day International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence.
Of the roughly 40 university-based teams that entered the tournament—schools in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and six European nations took part—half were from Japan. The field was split into two classes: one made up of six-inch-high critters that kicked an orange golf ball around, and the other of four-foot-tall robots that used a regulation-sized ball. Both brackets played five to a side, and games unfolded in five-minute halves. At halftime teams recharged their batteries, literally.
Unlike their basket-shooting and grappling counterparts, which are remote-controlled as they compete, the soccer robots rely on a preprogrammed central computer to help them recognize the ball and shoot it toward a net. Once the game begins, there's no human interaction. "We give each robot a camera [to help it determine where the ball is] and let it act without much nitpicking from the central computer," said Wei-Min Shen, who headed up a team from USC that competed in the large-robot bracket. "That's our secret."
The secret helped Southern Cal play to a 0-0 tie (see how like the real game RoboSoccer is!) in the final against Osaka University. Carnegie Mellon's entry, meanwhile, won the small-robot division. The strong U.S. showings came on the heels of an even more surprising development: At the Tokyo International Robot Grand Prix last month, a robotic car from the University of Maryland outraced more than 100 Japanese competitors to earn the title "fastest automaton in the East." That's not to say Japan can't match the best the U.S. has to offer in other sports. When asked how well the basketball-playing robots shoot free throws on his show, a television producer pondered a moment before answering, "About like Shaquille O'Neal."