A team of robots has bested their human creators in a soccer match at the opening to RoboCup China 2016. In fairness to humanity, though, the 3-to-2 final score reflected what appeared to be a lack of effort on the human side of the match. That’s not to say the accomplishment isn’t impressive. The little round robots did demonstrate a great sense of location and had a pretty good kick to boot. Sure, our top players may be able to take them, but these robots are working with only a single effective “leg,” just a small lever inside the machine that snaps when the ball is close.
On some level, we may be used to robots beating humans by now. We’ve long since lost chess to the supercomputers, and just recently the master at the game of Go fell to a Google A.I. We forget that, before we lost these final rounds, computers had been practicing and improving for years. This robotic soccer team may not put Messi, Neymar, and Ronaldo to the test, but their kids should be quaking in their boots. And the game didn’t leave us with any ESPN-caliber highlights, but these robots certainly do know how to put the ball in the back of the net.
If you’re not impressed with the agility or kicking skills of the bot soccer teammates, you should be able to at least appreciate their in-game schemes. Their near-instant communication abilities means they come to the game with an excellent sense of strategy and ability to work together. The robotic defensive swarm would trip up even the strongest attackers, and fear of knocking against the heavy metal objects would also hamper traditional soccer strategies. And the robots are autonomous. They are making their own decisions about how to play, which is impressive on both a sporting and technological level.
RoboCup China is a preliminary match for the summer’s World RoboCup Finals in Leipzig, Germany. Soccer will not be a main event, though the robots may make an appearance. The dream of soccer-playing robots has long existed, but it has always seemed just too distant, so much so that it’s not clear there are really any serious contenders for the robo-championship. China may be the dominant robo-soccer superpower, but if its scientists are any indication, their human team could use some serious work.