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Robots playing football during a RoboCup game in Japan.
Picture: AFP/ Getty Images

  Key points
• Japanese robotics experts claim robots will beat humans at football 
by 2050
• Keio University of Tokyo recent winners of robot world cup in Lisbon
• New robot, VisiON, stands 38cm tall and operates independently of 
humans

Key quote
  "By 2050, our aim is to beat the winners of football’s World Cup and 
we are very confident that we will be able to do that" - Shu Ishiguro, 
head of Robot Laboratory in Osaka

Story in full THE footballers of tomorrow will have the midfield guile 
of Zinedine Zidane, the finishing ability of Andriy Shevchenko and the 
staying power of Roy Keane.

  A Japanese consortium of robotics experts has thrown down the gauntlet 
to future players of the beautiful game by claiming their engineered 
humans will play mankind off the park within 45 years.

  "By 2050, our aim is to beat the winners of football’s World Cup and 
we are very confident that we will be able to do that," said Shu 
Ishiguro, who heads Robot Laboratory in Osaka. "When we have 
accomplished that, we will have a society in which humans and 
artificial intelligence are completely in harmony."

  Mr Ishiguro and his team are placing their faith in the offspring of 
VisiON.

  Standing a mere 38cm tall and weighing just 2.4kg, VisiON would not be 
expected to trouble the defences of most professional football teams, 
but it has taken some vast strides in recent years.

  Equipped with thighs that Steven Gerrard would be proud of, VisiON 
operates completely independently of human input, making its own 
decisions based on information that it perceives, and is able to 
recognise the football, approach it and deliver a hefty kick. It is 
also able to identify an opponent and shield the ball in much the same 
way as a human player does.

  It might not be the fastest thing on two legs, but it does already 
have one very major advantage over human players.

  "On top of VisiON’s head is a 360-degree vision sensor, meaning that 
it does not have to turn its head to see in any direction," said Mr 
Ishiguro.

  Having eyes in the back of its head will deprive the crowds of the 
future of that standard warning "Man on!"

  Widely regarded as the world’s leaders in robotics, Japanese experts 
have been working on bipedal machines capable of a broad range of tasks 
for several years. The decision to push ahead with a soccer-playing 
version was in part the result of robot world cup tournaments, the most 
recent of which was held in Lisbon, with the team from Tokyo’s Keio 
University winning the middle-size robot league and Osaka-based Systec 
Akazawa winning the humanoid league.

  A remarkable 346 teams from 37 countries took part in the 
championships, and the next tournament, RoboCup 2005, is scheduled for 
July in Osaka.

  While much of their energy is focused on football, robotics experts in 
Osaka are also busy developing more functional aides. Security robots 
come in the shape of dinosaurs and are programmed to stomp around 
offices; ankle-high vacuum cleaning robots are on the market already 
and Hospi is designed to make life easier for hospital staff by 
providing medical charts and taking X-rays.

  At the 2005 World Expo, which opens in Nagoya in March, humanoid 
robots that can recognise faces and remember names will be on hand to 
give directions to visitors and help out in child-care facilities.

  One area that researchers are not keen on tackling, however, is robot 
armies. "Down through human history, the weapon that has caused the 
most deaths has been the knife, so all technology has a risk, but what 
we do with this technology is up to human beings," Mr Ishiguro said. "I 
don’t think the idea of robot armies is a good one, but that’s not my 
decision."

  He also dodges the question of a robot insurrection, a possibility 
that will not have escaped anyone in the industry after the release of 
the Will Smith film I, Robot.

  "All these advanced technologies have an element of risk and we can 
warn of the dangerous aspects of robots in human society," Mr Ishiguro 
shrugs, "but cars, for example, successfully collaborate with humans 
and have been safely integrated into society.

  "Everyone who saw the RoboCup could see the advantages of technology 
and, as long as its development is kept open to the public, there is 
going to be no danger. But developments in the future we must discuss 
at that time, as a society."

  Mr Ishiguro is confident a player of steel and wire will one day lift 
the most prestigious trophy in football. "The important thing to 
remember is what you see here is just the beginning," says Mr Ishiguro.

  VisiON has already perfected the victory pose. Reminiscent of Eric 
Cantona in his pomp, it leans slightly to one side, hands on hips and 
with the ball - and the world - at its feet.


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