Can soccer robots beat World Cup team? Not yet ... but maybe someday

Ubbo Visser is a lot like any other soccer coach.

He’s obsessed with improving the way his players kick. He videotapes them and analyzes their progress. He cheers whenever his team scores a goal.

And when they lose a game, he and his team go back to the drawing board. Well, the motherboard.

Visser is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Miami, and his soccer players are knee-high robots. They are programmed by UM graduate students to compete against other robot squads. It’s not like a video game, with students on the sidelines manipulating joysticks for a robot kick. These sensor-studded bots have artificial intelligence that lets them analyze the game and make decisions in real time.

Visser and his student team will put their skills to the test Friday and Saturday at the RoboCup U.S. Open, an event being held at UM for the first time.

The bots don’t yet approach the skills of superstar athletes like Lionel Messi, which will be on display when Barcelona takes on Real Madrid in the “El Clásico” match scheduled for Miami later this summer. But nearly 20 years after the robot competition first began, Visser said critics have stopped laughing at the original vision of the event: to create a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players that can beat the winners of the 2050 World Cup.

The professor called the concept “a landmark project for science” that came about after computer scientists realized that programming a computer to beat the world champion chess player was within sight. Researchers wanted something more challenging, a marriage of artificial intelligence and robotics. Over the years, their soccer bots have advanced to the point where a match looks like a game with 3-year-olds at a park — only moving in slow motion.

It’s an immense technical challenge. Something as simple as tracking a soccer ball that rolls behind another player and predicting where it will show up next is confusing to a robot, and difficult to program in a robot with less computing power than a cellphone. One second, the ball registers in the robot’s vision, and in the next it disappears.

“It gives you huge respect for the human brain,” Visser said.

On Thursday, students from the three schools competing at the U.S. Open: UM’s RoboCanes, the University of Pennsylvania’s UPennalizers and the University of Texas at Austin’s team, Austin Villa, sprawled across a basketball court in the UM gym, tapping away at their laptops and testing their robots.

Visser set one of the RoboCanes’ six-member squad on the field — a spongy green mat marked with gleaming white tape and waist-high soccer goals. With the tap of a button, the 5-year-old robot straightened up and turned its head aside, scanning the pitch and figuring out which side was his.

The robot suddenly lurched into motion. He shuffled toward the miniature soccer ball, stopped, balanced on one leg to kick — and then promptly toppled over.

“We haven’t calibrated to the new ground yet,” Visser said.

The rules for the competition change every year to make the matches progressively more difficult and lifelike. This year, all of the matches will take place on artificial turf instead of flat ground. Visser, who has been taking part in the competitions for 17 years (with seven of those at UM), said that even the smallest change can throw off the delicately programmed robots. If a robot falls over, the bump can knock the built-in cameras out of place, disorienting the player.

A few years ago, the way the game started changed from an internal software program to a whistle blow, just like a real soccer match. Master’s student Kyle Poory, 25, spent the last year researching how the robots can communicate as a team using just sound, instead of over WiFi.

But even if the environment is the same, regular wear and tear on the robots can change performance. Just like humans, said master’s student Pedro Pena, 28. He tested a new kick thousands of time on robot No. 2.

“He had a bum knee,” Pena said. “But we fixed it.”

Most of the humanoid matches are five-on-five rather than 11-member teams that are standard in soccer, Visser said. “No university on the planet can afford 11 of these robots.” He said they run about $10,000 each and the maintenance is high.

The matches this weekend — which will lead up to a 24-team RoboCup 2017 championship in Japan in July — will be the RoboCanes’ first opportunity to show off Pena’s new kick. But don’t expect a stereotypical soccer player celebration if they score a goal.

“There’s none of that,” Poory said with a grin. “They’re very serious.”

Alex Harris: 305-376-5005, @harrisalexc

If you go

When: Friday, April 28 from 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, April 29 from 12:30 p.m. to 8:40 p.m.

Where: University of Miami, Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center, 1241 Dickinson Drive Coral Gables, FL 33146.

Who: Team RoboCanes from UM; Team UT Austin Villa from the University of Texas at Austin; and team UPennalizers from the University of Pennsylvania.

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