Many people think of robots that think and act like human as the stuff of the future or characters in science fiction movies. But a recent competition at an American university demonstrated that intelligent robots are already here.
In a gymnasium on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, more than 1,700 high school and university students and their faculty advisers readied their teams for a week of football or soccer, as Americans know it.
The athletes did not seem to mind the occasional touch of a soldering iron or twist of the screwdriver. That is because the players are robots, and they have come here with their human creators for Robocup 2007, the World Cup of robotic soccer. The robots in this competition are autonomous: they move, see and kick by themselves.
There are no wires, remote controls or even radio signals controlling them. Some look like machines, others look almost human. But these kid-size humanoids are still in the early stage of development movements awkward and crude.
It is hard to imagine that Robocup's goal is to create a team of robots that can defeat the World Cup human champions by the year 2050. But Tucker Balch, one of Robocup's organizers, fully expects to do it.
"We're already playing soccer with teams of robots with legs, that look like little people. And it's just another of many incremental steps until we reach that goal. They're all steps that we can predict and know. There's nothing magic has to happen. We just have to make steady improvement."
Balch expects to see robots helping people in their homes one day. They are already on the job at disaster sites. In the Rescue Robot event here, robots operated in a simulated collapsed building. The machines have to maneuver around obstacles and up stairs to find the dolls that represent human victims.
But because soccer is perhaps the most popular sport in the world, robotic soccer draws the most competitors. Teams from Japan, Germany and the United States have dominated Robocup since the competition began 10 years ago, but now other countries are winning matches. Organizer Tucker Balch says that is because each country has different approaches to designing and building their robots.
"What I find especially interesting is a country like Iran where they have fantastic engineers but they don't have all of the latest computing technology, cameras and so on. So that the technology the robots are built out of is maybe five years old, but their engineering and design is current, and they perform very, very well.
So well, in fact, that the Iranian junior soccer team, 'Team Espadana' is the defending world champion. Its robots are intensively engineered and they seem smarter than the others on the field. Team member Amir Kherabadi says they had to beat other groups to represent their country here.
"In our league, there are about 18 teams in Iran and every year they challenge each other and then the best team comes to the RoboCup."
Teammate Najam Naderi programs the robots. He says the Iranians put in a lot of time and effort.
"These [past] two or three years, we work all days and nights, eight or 10 hours a day."
All that work paid off. The Iranians robots did well at Robocup 2007. They beat soccer teams from Italy, Japan, Poland, Hungary and the United States. When the points were added up for the finals, Team Espadana wound up sharing the championship trophy with the Japanese and Italian teams.
RoboCup 2008 will be held in Shanghai, just before the Summer Olympics in Beijing.