I was prepared to accept that we humans are nothing more or less than the spark of our synapses. I was ready to consider that the human exceptionalism may be on its way out--that our tools may soon overtake us. Nothing, however, had prepared me to see a team of robots shaped like hockey pucks play such kick-ass soccer.
The RoboCup Federation was formed with the goal of fielding a team of fully autonomous humanoid soccer players by the year 2050 able to defeat the human world-championship team. Soccer was chosen because of the range of physical movements as well as for the cognitive skills required to make strategic decisions and play on a team. Were it not for the outdated qualifications "fully-autonomous" and "humanoid", and the goal was simply to produce a winning team of soccer-playing robots, I think they'd have a fighting chance of being ready for the 2010 games in South Africa. The pucks sweep down the field in perfect V-formation, scatter, then stop on a dime. They have rotating flippers like the beater-bars on vacuum cleaners that snap the ball down the field with a force more reminiscent of Foosball. They cover their opponents, avoid offsides, and are penalized for pushing. They have special attachments that allow them to punt the ball up, bouncing it off the lid of their opponent to score. They've even had to create a new rule--no bouncing on the goalie. Once the game begins, they're on their own, free from human intervention. There are no joysticks here.
The secret to their success is that each team is controlled remotely through one computer, which knows where each puck is and rearranges the pucks, calculating shots and analyzing the odds. Each team is also allowed a single overhead camera that helps them keep track of their opponents.
This centralized processing and top-down perspective, as well as the fact that they don't have to balance on two legs, makes the pucks easily 20 times more proficient than the humanoid teams, which possess the qualities stipulated in RoboCup's mission.
They bump and fall over; lose the ball when it goes behind another player and then spin their cameras helplessly to find it; they kick only to discover that the ball has moved on. Part of the difficulty is that horizontal perspective from their bouncing head-mounted camera means that the ball's size is always changing and it may even be changing color as it passes through shadow. The humanoid robot, using only its onboard computer, has to calculate distance and velocity as well as having a rough idea of the location of their teammates--all while staying upright. Their form makes them sympathetic, and the crowd clucks and ahs like proud parents, but there's not the sizzle like when the pucks take the field.