Football-playing robots

The phone rang. It was my son, Aris, calling from Cornell. “I’m on my way to Stockholm,” he said, trying hard to conceal his excitement. As that was the first I’d heard of him rushing off to Sweden instead of returning home after completing his studies, I plagued him with questions. Why? Who with? For how long?

He gave me a short answer : To compete in robotic soccer, what else!

A year earlier he had seen a poster on a notice board at Cornell University about a robotics competition in Stockholm – Robot World Cup ’99 or Robocup ’99, the goal of which was to find the best football playing machines or robots. He was too late to join the team as the application deadline had passed. Undeterred he had gone to see the professor in charge, Rafaello D’Andrea. He must have said something right as he eventually got in the team. He and his teammates then slogged day and night to develop miniature robots, 15cm tall and 13 cm wide. It didn’t hurt that they had received a grant of USD20,000 towards the project.

I could not quite believe in these robots playing football. If they could play football, they might be able to do other useful things. Like cleaning windows.

I’d been looking forward to him coming home after he’d obtained his electrical engineering degree at Cornell University. So his return trip to Kuala Lumpur would have to include a stop in Stockholm.

In Stockholm, Aris’ team had to compete with 17 teams from countries all over the world including Germany, Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland and Singapore. Each team would field five robots. They would play football against each other using a golf ball on a miniature playing field the size of a ping-pong table.

After going through several days of exhausting though exhilarating soccer games which saw tiny little robots moving at great speed to outdo their opponents, Aris’ Cornell team beat all the other 17 teams and emerged the overall winner. They were the Robocup ’99 champions!

He called me immediately with the news, and promised to fly home soon.

After he got home I was proud to see an article about him in the New Straits Times titled, “When robots rule the football field”. The article came with two photos, one of him smiling broadly as he showed the campus poster that had started it all, and another of his team in front of their robots which were neatly lined up on their playing field. As he explained to Dinesh Sai and Guruchathram Ledchumanan, the journalists who interviewed him, his team had excelled because their robots were installed with a special artifical intelligence program that helped each robot recognize its teammates and avoid colliding with each other and with the opponents.

At the end of the interview the journalists asked him, Can you imagine a team of androids playing football against humans in, say, the year 2050?

Aris confidently replied, It’s gonna happen. You had better believe it!

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We are the champions! – Aris (second from right), with the rest of the Cornell team in Stockholm, Sweden

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