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CMU soccer robots, with assist from humans, achieve goal

Saturday, May 03, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

All was going well yesterday in the first robotic soccer match of the RoboCup American Open until the moppets of the Cyert Center, Carnegie Mellon University's on-campus day care center, came trooping in.

Carnegie Mellon's team of four-legged Sony Aibo robots was leading the University of Washington team. But when the girls and boys in their summer shorts sat down along the sideline, the dog-like robots got distracted.

The problem, CMU senior Sonia Chernova explained later, is that the children's little hands and knees were about the same size as the RoboCup soccer ball. The robots, whose vision isn't that good to begin with, were mightily confused as their heads scanned back and forth to make sense of the scene.

A robotic meltdown was averted when the children were asked to move back from the field and Manuela Veloso, the CMU computer scientist in charge of the Open, handed out black T-shirts to cover up their bare legs. Carnegie Mellon's CMPack'03 team went on to beat the Huskies, 3-1.

Hundreds of students and researchers swarmed through Rangos Hall in CMU's University Center yesterday with the beginning of competition in the first American Open, which continues through Sunday.

The crowds shifted between four fields -- two ping-pong table-size courts for small robots and two 10-by-15-foot fields for the four-legged robots -- as well as a 20-by-24-foot disaster arena, a chamber of horrors used to test and compare robots designed for urban search and rescue missions. Teams from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico and South America are competing.

The preschoolers were a minor distraction, but typical of the sort of tiny detail that can trip up today's robots. And it also indicated how complicated it can be to stage a robotic competition. Though CMU has been prominent in the International RoboCup Federation, which sponsors an international robotic soccer competition each summer, this is the first time the university has hosted a RoboCup event and only the second RoboCup ever staged in the United States.

At the international competition, unlike the CMU layout, the playing fields are surrounded by knee-high white walls to prevent interference with the robots' vision. "I don't know how we forgot about that," a chagrined Veloso said.

One of the limitations of robotic vision is that robots can't adjust themselves to changing light and other environmental conditions. So spectators wearing orange shirts also were a distraction for the robots, whose electronic eyes are trained to look for the orange soccer ball.

"You can imagine my panic when we got to Paris in 1998 [for the international RoboCup competition] and the bleachers were orange," Veloso said.

Robotic soccer has been embraced by many researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics because it forces them to find ways for robots to learn how to work together and to do so at real-life speed.

Because the researchers share their knowledge, progress in the field is beginning to snowball, said John DeCuir, manager of software development for Sony's Entertainment Robot America division.

"Now we're seeing a convergence" of these efforts, and that could have effects on robotic systems beyond robotic soccer, he continued. Though Sony has focused its attention on entertainment robots, such as Aibo, new developments are transforming Aibo from a toy pet to "an agent, a home companion," that has real utility. Already, the latest Aibos can link wirelessly to personal computers and read their masters' e-mail out loud.

In the competition yesterday, Chernova, who has worked on CMU's RoboCup teams for the past two years, said that the four-legged robots on CMU's team seemed to communicate reasonably well during the match and showed encouraging progress in role assignment -- allowing only one member of the four-member team to be the primary attacker at any time.

But Veloso said more work will be necessary to sharpen the team's play if it is to repeat as world champions at this summer's International RoboCup in Padua, Italy.

The American Open is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. tomorrow. Honda will demonstrate its two-legged Asim robot at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. today. For more information, visit the Web site at www.americanopen03.org.

Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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