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The Shocking Truth Behind the Robot Soccer World Cup

By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, comply with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

The most surprising thing about the people behind the Robot Soccer World Cup is their air of total seriousness. These men and women have decided that a team of robots capable of acting in concert and making their own decisions will play and defeat the winners of World Cup 2050, and that the best way to achieve this goal is to stage an annual competition in which teams of toddling child-sized androids and modified AIBOs battle it out on a giant artificial pitch. There’s no joking around about this—no suggesting that David Beckham is an early prototype or that they’ll beat England by 2009. There’s just a grim assessment of the difficulties of the task ahead and a correspondingly grand evaluation of the potential benefits to mankind.

This goal may sounds overly ambitious given the state of the art technology today. Nevertheless, we believe it is important that such a long range goal to be claimed and pursued. It took only 50 years from the Wright Brother’s first aircraft to Apollo mission to send man to the moon and safely return them to the earth. Also, it took only 50 years, from the invention of digital computer to the Deep Blue, which beat human world champion in chess.

Then you download a video of, say, RoboCup 2007 and get this:

Or this:

This isn’t a timely post: the last RoboCup was held in July, in China, and the next one won’t be till summer 2009. And other bloggers have covered it before. But I’ve been reading about this all morning, and I watched the entire final of the 2008 Humanoid League (which went to extra time) and I’m trying to figure out what it means. Is whole thing an excuse for roboticists and teams of overeager Cornell students to geek out in a high-school gym under the pretense of advancing the frontier of knowledge? Or do great scientific developments always start out looking silly? And, then, how will it make Google faster for Rosie from The Jetsons to win a penalty shoot-out against Sergio Ag├╝ero’s grandchildren? I realize that your average steampunk-photoessay-bookmarking Boing Boing reader is probably inclined to hail the inexorable merging of humanity and, and I’m not really capable of reflexive alarmism on that subject. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that Cary Grant didn’t die so that an AIBO could score from a header, you know?

You could at least plausibly argue that the major influence of biomorphic robotics to this point has been imaginative, that the speculations, hopes, and fears it’s provoked about the nature of nature are more significant than anything it’s practically accomplished. But watching the video of the robot mimicking an arched-back pelvic-thrust goal celebration mostly just leads me to speculate that the only path out of the uncanny valley is for me, and possibly it, to have a drink.

In the Apollo project, the actual goal was much more than manned mission to the moon (PROJECT APOLLO: “THAT’S ONE SMALL STEP FOR A MAN, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.” The national effort that enabled Astronaut Neil Armstrong to speak those words as he stepped onto the lunar surface, fulfilled a dream as old as humanity. . . .

In case of RoboCup, the ultimate goal is to “develop a robot soccer team which beats human world champion team.”

But what if there’s another explanation? After reading the oddly translated, somehow beat-missing English on the RoboCup website, taking in its inflexibly deadpan, purpose-driven style, and watching the crowds in these videos, I’m working on a new theory. What if the real robots are the people running the competition? What if, instead of us performing experiments on them, they’re performing experiments on us?

Anyway, the next RoboCup is in Korea in the summer of 2009. Somebody remind me before it starts. There’s investigative work to be done here. I think I might try to send Vandal-prone.


The Shocking Truth Behind the Robot Soccer World Cup

by Brian Phillips · November 7, 2008

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