Will robots win the soccer World Cup in 2050?

robot soccer UNSW
Chair of RoboCup 2019 Organising Committee and long-time mentor to the UNSW Sydney RoboCup teams, UNSW Professor Claude Sammut with the players. Credit: Anna Kucera

In 30 years from now, could we be watching a robot face off on the soccer field against 2050’s version of Cristiano Ronaldo or Megan Rapinoe?

That was the vision of university professors back in 1997 when they created RoboCup, an annual robot soccer competition with university teams competing from all over the world. The professors’ aim for the annual event was to help advance state-of-the-art intelligent robots, with the ultimate goal of beating human world champions in the sport by 2050.

The 2019 tournament kicks off today in Sydney, where five-time champs, UNSW’s  ‘rUNSWift‘ team, will be battling it out against competitors from more than 30 countries, with about 170 teams and 1700 participants.

And sure, if footage from last year’s RoboCup is anything to go by, the robots might struggle to beat your local under-five team let alone the world’s best at this stage (although they certainly compete in cuteness):

But 30 years is a long time in the tech world – so never say never (after all, back in 1989 CDs were the new big thing and only the wealthy elite could afford mobile phones which were so clunky they’re the stuff of joke memes today).

“More challenging every year”

And the nature of the competition is proof that tech progress rather than winning is the true name of the game – after each tournament, all teams release their code so others can analyse what the best teams did and improve on their own work for following year.

“This is why the competition is more and more challenging every year,” says rUNSWift student team leader, Kenji Brameld. The rUNSWift team is made up of five undergraduate students, and one postgraduate student.

If you were wondering why the robots on both teams look the same, that’s because the competition isn’t about designing the best robot, but the best underlying software.

“In the standard platform league, all teams use the same hardware – the physical humanoid robot,” explains UNSW Professor Claude Sammut, Chair of the RoboCup 2019 Organising Committee. “The test is to create the best software, so the teams must push technological boundaries to try to create robots with the best movement, vision processing, decision-making and strategy in order to win,” he says.

Professor Sammut says he believes competitions such as RoboCup are extremely valuable for university students as it allows them to stand out from the pack in Australia’s tech workforce.

“It enhances their hands-on learning experiences and greatly increases their employability. They get to work with some of the leading researchers in AI and robotics as well as developing practical skills in software and mechatronic engineering,” Professor Sammut said.

In addition to soccer, RoboCup will feature contests in robotic urban search and rescue missions, manufacturing and logistics and home assistance challenges, plus a special division for school students, RoboCup Junior.

RoboCup will take place at Sydney’s International Convention Centre at Darling Harbour from July 4 – 7 and is open to the public. Register for tickets here.

Gemma Chilton

Author: Gemma Chilton

Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.

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