Japan's RoboCup 2017 sees soccer robots compete to beat humans in 2050

It may sound outlandish but some roboticists think a team of humanoid soccer players will win a match against the world’s best humans by the year 2050. It will not be a short road to victory, though. Many of today’s humanoid robots walk with an infantile gait that makes them prone to falling over and that is without the added task of bending a ball around defenders. This year, RoboCup 2017 takes the tournament to Japan.

Every year for the past two decades teams have met in a friendly tournament called RoboCup, which sees them compete in soccer matches and more practical challenges like industrial production and rescue missions. While the last two may be more immediately relevant, the soccer tournament is RoboCup’s main attraction.

“The ultimate goal of Robocup is to develop humanoid soccer-playing robots that can beat the FIFA world champion team,” Gerhard Kraetzschmar, General Chair of last year’s RoboCup, previously told Digital Trends. “We hope to reach that goal by 2050.”

RoboCup launched in 1996, shortly after IBM’s Deep Blue computer system defeated the world’s best chess player. The RoboCup founders realized that, while Deep Blue’s achievement was impressive, there were situations that a smart system would be unable to overcome. They created the tournament and set the 2050 goal to raise the standards and challenge engineers to create machines that could not only think like humans but could “act” like humans as well.

It’s been a challenge to develop such athletic robots. Indeed, even over two decades later, the humanoid machines competing in RoboCup are often comical in their abilities, or lack thereof.

The three main handicaps experienced by the bots are physical agility, stamina, and perception. The human body is the product of millions of years of evolution, and we are particularly suited to play the game of soccer. Humanoid robots, on the other hand, have to be built from the ground up to play the sport, which requires the design of complex artificial muscles.

Meanwhile, today’s battery systems are heavy and need to be replaced during the match. If humanoids will ever defeat humans, they will first need a light, compact, and efficient energy source.

Finally, researchers need to code sophisticated systems of perception to allow their autonomous bots to evaluate things like tactics, field positioning, and ball movement.

Although the end goal is the develop a competitive humanoid team, capable robots of other shapes and sizes already compete in the tournament. The competition ran from Thursday through Sunday, with a closing symposium held on Monday.