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Coming up: A battle in Seattle for the RoboCup

Monday, July 30, 2001

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

A month after the debut of Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," some real A.I. -- robotic soccer -- will make its U.S. premiere this week in Seattle.

The movie "A.I." has drawn steadily decreasing crowds since its release, but the RoboCup robotic soccer competition has grown in popularity since the first contest in 1997. Just 12 teams participated in that first RoboCup in Nagoya, Japan, but 10 times that number are expected at the Seattle event, which begins Thursday.

Manuela Veloso is the director of the MultiRobot Lab of CMU's Robotics Institute and chairwoman of this year's RoboCup event, being held in Seattle. She's setting up some of the CMU robots that will be entered in the competition for a practice match. These omni-directional robots can move in any direction no matter which way they are facing, and will be competing for the first time. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Manuela Veloso, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and the general chair for this year's RoboCup, estimates that the 450 participants from 25 countries will be bringing about 200 robots with them.

"That's exciting because I don't think anyone has seen this many robots in one place," she added.

Another Carnegie Mellon researcher, Tucker Balch, and a CMU alum now at AT&T Labs, Peter Stone, are associate chairs. The competition is sponsored worldwide by Sony Corp. and SGI, a supercomputer maker, with local support from CMU and the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. RoboCup is being held in conjunction with the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, a major scientific meeting for AI researchers.

It's the first time RoboCup has been held in the United States. With Japan set to host again next year and with Mexico, Italy and Austria vying to host in 2003, the competition likely won't return to this country before 2007, Veloso said.

The goal of the International RoboCup Federation is to develop a robotic team capable of beating the human world soccer champions by 2050.

In the meantime, the competition takes place in four different forms: a small robot league, which features robots small enough to be cradled in the hand playing on a field the size of a ping-pong table; a medium-size league, featuring autonomous robots the size of toaster ovens; teams of Sony's four-legged Aibo "dog" robots; and a simulation league that dispenses with robotic hardware and allows software programs to battle each other inside computers.

Unlike recently popular robotic competitions, notably Comedy Central's Battle Bots, these robots are autonomous. Once a match begins, humans keep their hands off the controls.

Carnegie Mellon will field all four types of teams. Here's what's in store this year:

In the simulator and small-robot leagues, the CMU teams will use software that will analyze the behavior and strategy of the opposing teams and adjust their play accordingly (see accompanying story).

In the small robot league, the five-member team for the first time will be composed of two different types of robots -- two four-wheeled robots that are fast but are conventionally steered and three omni-directional robots, three-wheeled machines that can move in any direction, regardless of which way they are facing.

In the medium-sized robot league, the individual robots will continue the effective strategy of sharing video images with each other. Work has focused on upgrading the reliability of the balky robots -- replacing their wire-strewn computer brains with sleek laptop computers -- and improving navigation.

For the legged robots, the participants have developed a new, powerful way of kicking the ball; the robot flops to the floor on its front elbows and butts the ball with its head.

This year, RoboCup also will sponsor a demonstration using humanoid robots, a rescue robot competition in which teams of robots try to find casualties inside a three-story house built by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a simulation version of the rescue robot competition, and RoboCup Junior, which will pit middle and high school teams against each other using robots built from Lego Mindstorm kits.

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