And Finally

Just for kicks

A World Cup for robots took place in Harbin

Just the robotic keeper to beat

France’s Raymond Domenech must have wished he was coaching one of the football teams competing in Harbin last month, rather than in South Africa.

Infamously, his French side crashed out of the World Cup – finishing bottom of group A – with his players refusing to train.

Had he been coaching one of the teams in Harbin, Domenech would have had no problems with dressing room lip. That’s because the teams competing in the northeastern Chinese city were a lot less emotional than his French superstars. The reason: they were robots.

The robots were all competing in a world first: the International Humanoid Robot Olympics Games. Teams from American and South Korean universities, as well as China’s own, battled it out in 24 events – including shooting, weightlifting and dancing.

A total of 18 teams competed to win top honours in the most sought-after event: robot football. As the BBC points out, a condition of entry in the tournament was that the robots had to take “human form”, meaning two arms, two legs and a head. And unlike most footballers, they were also equipped with intelligence, albeit of the artificial variety.

As in the real game, a lot of the matches were settled on penalties. One moment of drama involved ‘Big Black’, the tallest of the robot players to grace Harbin. The robots use colour-sensors to identify the position of the goalkeeper and then calculate where to place the ball. But to the dismay of his creators, Big Black was too tall, and the goalie robot crouched so low, that he was unable to identify the goalkeeper’s position. That meant that he fired his shots right into the centre of the goal, which were easily saved.

It proved a teething error: when Big Black’s line of sight was lowered his goal-scoring technique proved unstoppable.

They say homefield advantage is important and curiously that holds even where robots are concerned. The winner of the robotic football event was Harbin Institute of Technology, the host.

The fact that such an event was held in China speaks volumes. Japan has long been recognised as the world leader in robotics – and with a shrinking population and distaste for immigration that’s not a surprise. The country’s likely goal is to commercialise robotic household servants.

China meanwhile is seeking to shake its reputation as a factory for cheap goods, and position itself further up the value curve. An event like this is a showcase for the country’s academics (and remind the Chinese public that the nation’s technical prowess extends beyond farmer Wu Yulu’s homemade robots, as featured in WiC59).

There is still some way to go. When a robotic goalkeeper was pitted against a 4 year-old boy, it saved the first two penalties. However, when the boy adapted and took his kick quickly, he scored every time.

“Speed remains the fatal flaw of humanoid robots,” laments Chinese academic Cai Hegao.


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