PHILADELPHIA — When robots first started playing soccer, it was a challenge for them just to see the ball. And to stay upright.
But the machines participating in this month's international RoboCup tournament are making passes and scoring points. Their ultimate goal? To beat the human World Cup champs within the next 35 years.
"It's hard to predict what will happen in 2050, but we are on the right path," said event co-founder Manuela Veloso, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
A week after Sunday's World Cup title game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between Germany and Argentina, teams from 45 countries will face off at RoboCup about 1,200 miles away, in the Brazilian coastal town of Joao Pessoa.
The "players," which range from life-sized humanoids to wheeled objects the size of soccer balls, compete in size-based divisions on miniature indoor fields.
While certainly fun to watch, organizers say the annual competition isn't just about creating kicking machines. It's about teaching the fully autonomous robots to make quick, smart decisions while working together in a changing environment.
Those algorithms can translate off the field into technology like self-driving cars or delivery drones, said University of Pennsylvania engineering professor Dan Lee.
Lee, who directs Penn's robotics lab in Philadelphia, has been the head "coach" of the school's RoboCup soccer teams since 2002. Back then, the games resembled those played by 5-year-old children, Lee said.
"They would all cluster together," he said of the robots. "Whoever got the ball would have a hard time figuring out which way to kick the ball."
Now, it's like watching 10-year-olds execute basic athletic skills and strategies, Lee said.
Just like humans, the robots have to "practice" as students monitor (but do not control) their actions in the lab.
When RoboCup began in 1997, Veloso said, most robotics research focused on the abilities of single machines, such as NASA's Sojourner rover on Mars. The hope with RoboCup is to emphasize machine collaboration, she said.
The team from George Mason University in Virginia wants to teach its players to work together in real time — a crucial skill for using droids to respond to disasters or emergencies. Students plan to train their 18-inch-tall humanoids through field demonstrations immediately before each game.