At the time of writing, it wasn't clear whether Janet Jackson or the Rolling Stones would be providing the half-time entertainment, but even without a major wardrobe malfunction, RoboCup 2007 is shaping up to be the hottest sporting event of the summer. From July 1-10, Georgia Tech in Atlanta will host RoboCup, the zany project of a group of robotics researchers who over the next 40 years or so are determined to build a squad of robots capable of winning against the world champion human soccer team. For now, they are just competing against other robots. This is an eccentric, entertaining and highly useful quest, since these types of autonomous robotic devices are poised to enter our lives in some surprising and possibly unsettling ways.
To see what I mean, check out the videos of the 2005 competition in Osaka. The slow-motion instant replay from the Humanoid League Video is a must-see. Feel the tension as the robot prepares to strike! Feel the desperation as the robotic goal-keeper reacts a bit too slowly, dropping his head to the right and making a belated, ill-fated lunge! For a human being to raise a foot and kick a soccer ball like that is an amazingly complex event, involving millions of different neural computations co-ordinated across several different brain regions. For a robot to do it -- and to do it this gracefully -- is a major technical accomplishment. Plus, the robots are not programmed to do this stuff; they learn to do it, just like you and me. Howard Cosell, where are you now?!
Also watch the cuddlier, though far less accomplished, quadrupeds in the Four Legged League Video, with hilarious musical accompaniment by Duelling Banjos. Aren't these silicon Spots just the cutest things you've ever seen? They are marvels of technological ingenuity. They are also "living" proof of how easily, eagerly even, we can anthropomorphize robots -- and why I expect there won't be much of a fuss when these little metallic critters start infiltrating our homes, offices, and daily lives.
The Japanese are way ahead of everybody else on this. I met a Japanese robot on wheels that shook my hand and asked how I was; the politest artificially intelligent entity I ever did meet. I played with a robotic cat that looked at me when I called its name, even in my atrocious Japanese. And I encountered a "face robot," an actual woman's face made of silicon jelly that could engage me in conversation and whose eyes could follow me around the room. The South Koreans have now produced an entire robotic humanoid, which can display expressions of happiness, anger, sadness and pleasure. It can "see," too; that is, it has video monitors and an artificial intelligence program that allow it to interpret (and respond appropriately to) the facial expressions of a human being.
What 's the use of all this stuff? The Japanese want to employ face and other humanoid-type robots in healthcare, specifically as mechanical minders for the elderly. Robots like the soccer players would be useful for dangerous environmental clean-up jobs and rescue operations. The military is quite keen on these machines, too, though their designs can't quite be described as cute. And if the manufacturers create these robots with big wet puppy dog eyes, or wearing the face of a loved one or a favorite film star, I think we'll grow to like them pretty quickly. When they have enough senses and "intelligence," then I'm convinced that these machines will qualify as living things. Not human beings, by any means; but kind of like high-tech pets. And turning one off will be the moral equivalent of shooting your dog.
James Geary is the author of Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists.