The annual RoboCup World Championships is currently taking place in Hefei, China demonstrating that it might not be long before world’s best footballers are challenged by a team of robots.
Although the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo don’t have anything to worry about for now, the eventual goal of the championships is to defeat the winners of the FIFA World Cup with a team of automatons.
Teams from 45 nations are competing this year, with tournaments organised for small, medium and large humanoid robots. There is also a coding competition and football simulation contest that does not use any hardware at all.
Robotics has progressed significantly since the tournament began in 1997, but robots still spend a lot of time falling over without anyone near them (something that could be disparagingly described as pretty realistic). The real challenge is getting the robots to complete the multiple tasks involved in playing a game of football. They must first identify the ball, then make their way towards it and kick it successfully (towards the correct goal ideally), all without falling over.
To make the competition even more challenging, organisers have added an Astroturf surface this year, making it even easier for the robots to fall over, and are using a white ball, which will be more difficult for the robots to see.
There are also plenty of incidences of robots kicking each other, although as it isn’t deliberate there are no yellow or red cards at the championships. Despite the lack of foul play, the RoboCup World Championships is a popular event, with last year’s matches hosting more than 3,000 spectators.
Ultimately, the competition aims to produce a team capable of taking on humans by 2050, something that Professor Daniel Polani from the University of Hertfordshire believes is possible.
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"Ten years ago, this would have seemed difficult - but we have made such huge progress in the last 10 years, that it is definitely possible," he said. "It is not entirely unrealistic."