“Kick it!” screams a spectator. “Please! Kick it!” A striker has dribbled through to just outside the box, met two defenders, and stopped. All three players stand frozen, centimeters apart, over the ball. With his nearest teammate running in circles behind the halfway line, the striker tentatively leans on his left leg, raises a foot shaped like a small baking tray, and falls over. This – a group match at last year’s international Robocup in Eindhoven, the Netherlands – is state-of-the-art autonomous robot football.
Let robots be robots, using wheels, lasers, and omnidirectional vision, and their skills are impressive. Teams from Robocup’s Middle Size League, who look like waist-high black pyramids, have played five-a-side matches against human teams since 2007. But football with feet is much harder: in 2000, creating bipedal robots that could kick was a major challenge, and it will be 2030 before humanoid robots, restricted to senses analogous to our five, play people. By 2050, the annual competition aims to have produced a team of humanoid robots so sophisticated that they will beat the winners of the World Cup. For now, they take baby steps, bump into each other and struggle to stand up, while their creators, like Professor Yasuo Hayashibara at Japan’s Chiba Institute of Technology, fret on the sidelines like anxious parents.
“Robots sometimes lose their sense of where they are,” explains Hayashibara. Nothing can be taken for granted, and he and his team, CIT Brains, have developed a program, Goal Oriented Action Planning, which gives the machines a basic existential sense of self. With only one camera “eye” each, their “KidSize” robots struggle with depth perception and, like most humanoid robots, have internal gyroscopes to keep balance, but no “touch” pressure sensors in their feet. Overcoming challenges like these has made football, with its exceptional range of physical and social demands, the standard problem for robot engineers. The technology behind the players competing in last year’s Robocup will be used to make rescue robots, intelligent work colleagues, autonomous wheelchairs, and android nurses. The robots that care for you in the coming decades will have started their lives on the pitch.
With integrated GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes and radios, high-tech vests that stream a player’s heart rate, speed and position to a coach’s laptop have become ubiquitous in training at English Premier League clubs ever since Tottenham Hotspur ordered a first batch of customized shirts in 2011.
By 2030, Ian Pearson, a British futurologist focused on technological developments, expects live footage of football matches to be complemented by cameras mounted on tiny insect-like robots that will buzz around players on the pitch.
In a step up from smart shirts, Pearson predicts that in 20 years, electronics printed directly onto footballers’ skin will collect data about their nerves and blood chemistry as they train, punishing imperfect movements by “injecting sensory stimulation directly into nerves.”
Fifty years into the future, Pearson envisages android players built of soft, human-like gel-polymers. More agile than humans and five times stronger, each android will be collectively controlled by a large number of fans, telling it where to run and what to kick.