RoboCup 2006: Silicon Players of the Beautiful Game

Never mind chess — the cool game for smart machines now is soccer. Humanoid robots stumble around the field but learn quickly. They’re playing their own World Cup this week in Germany, and scientists hope machines will beat human champions in less than 50 years.

Paul, Franz, Gerd, and the shapely Lara aren’t exactly soccer stars. In fact, they’re not even human. They have feet made of carbon fibers and hips with double AC servomotors, powered by lithium-ion batteries with just enough juice for two ten-minute halves. But they’re preparing for a World Cup of their own this week in Germany. “Look at this — that was no coincidence,” says their inventor, Sven Behnke, pointing at a computer screen displaying the moves from a game last year against Japan’s “Team Osaka.” The fact that his protégés scored a single goal still makes Behnke proud.

He’s a computer scientist from the University of Freiburg who also serves as head coach of the team “NimbRo,” a group of robot athletes that may make soccer history this week. Last year the Freiburg side placed second in their league. Only the Japanese team beat them, 2-1 — in spite of a heroic goal in the second-to-last minute. … More

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