A League of Their Own


roboBy Linda Gorman

The referee stands at midfield, holding a stopwatch in one hand and a whistle in the other as the final seconds on the clock tick away. A crowd of about 50 people stand pressed up against the white fence along the edge of the pitch, with cameras and phones in hand ready to record. Several kids fill the front row, gripping the barrier and leaning over for a better look. After two minutes spent lumbering past midfield up to the penalty mark, the Taiwanese robot finally gets in position to shoot.This will be its final chance to score. The opposing goalie, a robot named “THOR” by its creators at University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Los Angeles, stands centered in between the goal posts waiting for the final shot.

Both robots stand about as tall as an 8-year-old child. The Taiwanese robot is all white and silver, light, and delicate. UPenn’s robot looks sturdier and is made of shiny, black metal plates locked together insect- style. THOR has looked strong throughout this week’s competition in Joao Pessoa, Brazil, where his team won its first three matches without sacrificing a single goal. But today, UPenn master’s student and robotics team member Larry Abraham is less confident. The robot from the National Taiwanese University of Science and Technology, “HuroEvolution,” is lighter and faster on its feet. “This was expected to be a good game,” Abraham says.

With just a few minutes left to go, the score stands at 2 to 1, advantage UPenn. Time is running short, and the white robot is taking its sweet time with NTUST’s final chance to equalize. “Forty-five seconds,” the referee calls out. Slowly, HuroEvolution maneuvers around the ball to get the right angle to shoot.

In some ways, RoboCup's soccer tournament resembles a similarly named competition that took place a week earlier on the other side of Brazil. The energy of the audience. The dedication of the coaches and crew. The diversity of teams and fans from across the world, united by a common passion: the pride at stake.

Of course, there are a couple of key differences. The RoboCup field spans the length of two adjacent parking spots.Two to five players make up each team, and teams represent universities with strong computer science and mechanical engineering departments rather than countries, like in the FIFA World Cup. And then there are the players themselves: some of the world’s most sophisticated bots, ranging from two- foot-tall bots to highly customized, human- sized machines like UPenn’s goalie who blocked HuroEvolution's shot and won UPenn this year's RoboCup trophy for the team.

RoboCup is an international robotics competition, held at a different location every year.Teams compete in five categories based on size and technical specifications. This year’s competition brought together over 100 teams from more than 40 countries.

The first RoboCup took place in Nagoya, Japan, in 1997, under the direction of University of Osaka professor Minoru Asada. Asada started the competition with a lofty goal: for the RoboCup champions to be able to beat the winners of the FIFA World Cup by the year 2050.

While studying abroad in Japan last semester, I visited Asada’s lab at Osaka University. Associate professor Hiroki Mori went over the lab’s main areas of research. Asada’s multidisciplinary team focuses on artificial intelligence and machine learning. The lab’s best-known creation is robot baby Affeto. The reason for making childlike robots is simple: If robots look like children, people will treat them like children—speaking slowly and gesturing for emphasis. German Ph.D. student Lars Schillinger showed me an iCub, a friendly looking robot about the size of a 2-year-old capable of showing expression with red LCD eyebrows and a mouth. Schillinger slowly stacked three colored cups inside of each other as the robot watched, explaining his actions as he went. The robot clumsily repeated the action, frowning adorably whenever it made a mistake.

A trophy from last year’s RoboCup occupies an important place on a shelf in the lab. The team from Osaka University took home first place in the adult-sized humanoid division, the same competition in which UPenn’s THOR was entered this year. The Asada lab team won a narrow victory against the same Taiwanese team that UPenn’s team faced off against in Brazil this summer.

For Mori, the RoboCup has a special significance. He saw the first ever RoboCup in Nagoya when he was 15. “That’s how I became interested in robotics,” Mori says.

There’s a long history of robotics in Japan. The island nation produces and employs more industrial robots than any other country on earth. According to data from the International Robotics Federation, Japan employs over 300,000 units of industrial robots, making it the world’s most automated country. Outside of manufacturing centers, the Japanese penchant for automation is reflected in the ubiquity of the vending machines at every street corner, dispensing everything from museum entry tickets to hot coffee to restaurant orders to beer—no ID required.

Robots also hold a prominent place in Japanese pop culture. A 14-meter model of a giant fighting robot looks across Tokyo harbor, drawing millions of visitors each year. Astro Boy, widely regarded as the first-ever anime at the time of its 1952 launch, features a friendly crime-fighting boy robot. Scholars like Heather Knight and Naho Kitano have argued that the traditional Shinto belief in animism, that all things animate and inanimate have a spirit, contributes to Japan’s fascination with robots particularly in the consumer sphere.

According to SU Computer Science Program Director Dr. Jae Oh, U.S. military goals have motivated U.S. robotics research. “In Asia and other places, people have been more interested in creating robots that can actually live and breathe with human beings,” Oh says. U.S. robotics focuses more around creating teams of robotstoworktogetherlikea“platoon,”as compared to Asia’s focus on one super- robot that performs multiple functions.

Eight U.S. teams made it to this year’s competition in Brazil. “Getting involved is a huge investment in money and time,” UPenn advisor Dr. Daniel Lee says. Abraham mentions that some programs in the U.S. focus more energy on the DARPA challenge, a department of defense- sponsored competition that deals with disaster relief. Unlike in the RoboCup, schools actually get paid for competing in the DARPA challenge. Lee uses a sports analogy for comparison: RoboCup is the Olympics, while DARPA is the NFL.

Many U.S. teams may choose to go to competitions closer to home, Oh suggests. Over the past few years teams from SU have gone to local and regional competitions including Micromouse, a robotic mouse maze race, and the ION Robotic Lawnmower competition.

As you might have guessed from the tortoise-like pace of the humanoid division final, the robot Lionel Messi is a long way off from Asada’s end goal. According the Abraham, the biggest challenge teams in the adult-sized humanoid division face is walking quickly, without falling down—not exactly the stuff of sci-fi legends. Handlers have to stand behind the robots in case they fall over to make sure no damage is done to technology worth roughly the same as a small suburban home.

That said, Lee says the competition has come a long way since he first became involved in 2002. He compares the early matches to 5-year-old soccer. “Half the kids don’t even pay attention to the game,” Lee says. “Every now and then someone will get the ball but they’re not sure what direction they’re supposed to kick it in.”

Now, he says RoboCup teams have advanced to 11-year-old soccer. The robots know to go after the ball, and they have some sense of how to coordinate as a team. Lee admits that beating a human team is still a long way off. But maybe not as far as you might think.

“If you think about what the world was like 30 years ago, 40 years ago, we didn’t even have computers at that time. We didn’t have cell phones or smartphones,” Lee says. “The pace of technological innovation is incredible right now.”

In 1997, the year RoboCup was created, chess-playing robot Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparof in six consecutive matches. In 2011, IBM’s Watson computer competed against Ken Jennings in Jeopardy and came away with a $1 million victory. I, for one, am more than ready to see a robot bend it like Beckham.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jerk.

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