[Published on June 13, 2014 in The New Republic]
On an overcast Thursday afternoon, just hours before Neymar would open the World Cup in Brazil, the robots took to the pitch at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.
I didn’t know what to expect, and I suspect the 50 or so other humans in attendance didn’t either. Robots are already smarter than most of us. Machines will continue to take more of our jobs. And Hollywood is sure they will eventually rise up and kill us all. Sports are all we have left, really. What if robots started beating us at soccer, too?
This demonstration, led by Daniel D. Lee, head of the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, put some of these fears to rest. “We think of machines as being better than us in a lot of things—chess, Jeopardy—but if you look at [robot soccer], we see how humans are much better than machines at something we consider natural: just running around on a field, following a ball, and kicking it,” said Lee. “That is still a very difficult task for a robot.”
Lee motioned to his students—a handful of undergrads and master’s students who made the day trip from Philadelphia—to start the demonstration. The students set four robots on the ground, along with a ball and goal; the robots are, in theory, designed to follow and move toward the ball, though that didn’t happen every time. Instead they crab-walked upside-down, rolled over, collided several times, and even flopped.
“Like an Italian player!” a man in the audience yelled, to laughter.
The audience found the robots endearingly clumsy, more reminiscent of a gaggle of tykes clustered around the ball, indiscriminately kicking and frequently falling, than any of the midfield maestros you’ll see on ESPN over the next month. Their size—these robots stood roughly two feet tall—and inability to maintain balance seemed to remind people of babies struggling to take their first steps. But like babies, they were kind of cute: the crowd cooed and rooted them on.
While the robots were not especially successful at making contact with the ball or scoring goals, these kinks are apparently not unique to the Penn team (nickname: UPennalizers). Lee recalled one Robot Soccer World Cup match in which all the robots simply left the field. But that’s not the worst result he’s witnessed on the robot-soccer circuit: “I’ve seen a match where the robot, after making a kick, fell over and decapitated itself, and then the head rolled across the field.”
After the demonstration ended, about half the audience stuck around to watch the first game of the World Cup on a big projection screen. Some people were talking about how far America’s Major League Soccer had come; Brazil’s starting goalkeeper plays for Toronto FC. An older gentleman, watching the game to avoid going outside in the rain, commented that he couldn’t wait for real football to start. Then Marcelo scored an own goal, and everyone agreed that even a robot would never do that.