Before robot soccer players can beat humans, they’ll need to stop toppling over

Judging by some of the footage coming out of this year’s RoboCup soccer challenge in Japan, the organizer’s stated ambition to build a team of autonomous robot players good enough to beat a team of professional human players by 2050 seems a little, shall we say … optimistic?

Take the game (above) played the other day between two teams vying for glory at the annual event, which brings together more than 3,500 dedicated developers from some 40 countries.

As you can see, the humanoid robots seem rather better at falling over than kicking the ball. Perhaps they’ve been programmed with the mind of the legendary Dutch striker Arjen Robben, a player well known for his love of taking dives in a devious bid to gain advantage via a free kick or penalty kick. But these particular bots appear to be going down for the heck of it, though their ability to quickly get back on their feet is, it has to be said, very impressive.

Pretty much throughout the video, the diminutive robots hit the deck almost at random. If they were human, the crowd would assume they’d been out on the sauce the night before and were yet to fully recover. But these are robots. Robots that have a serious problem staying on their feet.

The ability to remain upright is mighty important when it comes to winning a soccer match, so some serious software and hardware advances will have to be made before programmers and engineers have any hope of meeting the bold 2050 deadline. At this rate, the likes of Ronaldo and Messi could probably be brought out retirement at that time and still beat the team of hopeful robot players.

The good thing is that despite the robots’ current clumsiness, some of them are scoring goals — another important factor for winning a game. So there is hope. And with every stumble, tumble, and trip, the developers building the bots will have more data to analyze to help them hone their designs.

Indeed, this year’s RoboCup contest has reportedly seen significant improvements in the way the robots’ kick the ball and also how they plan moves. So with 33 years to go, maybe — just maybe — the robots will have a fighting chance of taking on a team of skillful human players. Be sure to check back in 2050 to find out.

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