Bend it like Robo-Beckham

Roboticists want to field a team of automatons in the 2050 World Cup that can win it all. Are they nuts? Or is this how progress is made?

Published June 11, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

The first time I watched the Carnegie Mellon University team practicing RoboCup robot soccer in the Robot Learning Lab, I just didn't get it.

Five lunchbox-size wheeled gizmos with pastel splotches on their lids zipped around an area the size of a Ping-Pong table, chasing and shooting an orange golf ball toward a goal. OK, mildly interesting. But they missed regularly, crashed into one another, and sometimes fell apart. For long periods, nothing happened at all. The students that designed and programmed the lunchboxes tapped ferociously on keyboards, ate cold pizza, laughed like maniacs, and periodically paused to share fantasies of kicking the robots across the room or hurling them from 10-story buildings. I had just dropped in for a visit, but this was their life, every day, and often into the wee hours of the night.

Their leader, Manuela Veloso, the CMU robotics professor who is one of the driving forces behind RoboCup, works just as hard as her students, tirelessly promoting her vision of athletic automatons. The long-range objective of RoboCup, she tells anyone who will listen -- and everyone listens when Manuela talks -- is brazen, ingenious and nearly within our grasp: to create a team of robots that will play head-to-head, on the same field, with the same ball, following the same rules and regulations, against humans -- the World Cup soccer champions, in fact, on or before the year 2050 -- and kick butt.

I didn't understand it then, but the endless sessions of frustration and comic relief in the CMU Robot Learning Lab, fueled by the conviction and compulsion of Veloso, contained the secret behind the popularity of RoboCup and the unyielding dedication of the people who, via their robots, play it.

Before observing RoboCup in action, I perceived roboticists as clever innovators on a quest for the killer app -- vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, personal assistant -- that would turn them into billionaires. Roboticists, I assumed, also had anthropomorphic motivations: They wanted to re-create themselves; or they were wannabe cyborgs looking to extend the parameters of human possibility.

But there's also a much more visceral aspect to the RoboCup and to the entire subculture of roboticists. The engineers, software and sensor geeks I came to know are obsessed with, flat-out addicted to, the simple, straightforward goal of getting their ornery, balky creatures to work. Nothing dissuades them. Defeat, frustration, agonizing and unyielding aggravation, just spur them on. The prospect of robots in the World Cup may strike other people as absurd, impossible, or just plain silly, but the fixation on this vision by Veloso and her RoboCup corps is also a powerful motivational force for progress and change.

Ten years ago, Veloso and a colleague, Hiroaki Kitano, now a senior scientist at Sony Japan, were troubled by the slow advances in robotic autonomy. They blamed colleagues who worked independently and in secret, hiding their data. No single person working alone, programmer or engineer, Veloso and Kitano maintained, could make robots think, act and perceive. Duplicating a human being is simply too complicated -- if it's possible at all -- without regular collaboration.

Kitano is a soccer enthusiast. He, Veloso and a few others hatched the RoboCup plan: Persuade colleagues to build and program robots to function as teams and play soccer against one another. Turn it into a big international event that would attract the important people in the field. Pledge to share all data at the end of the event with anyone who participates. No secrets.

The goal is to achieve what Veloso calls "the essential loop: developing robots that function simultaneously with action (movement), cognition (thinking), perception (vision and awareness)." Veloso is particularly interested in multiplayer robotic systems: how robots work with one another, share information and prioritize tasks. Soccer's reliance on teamwork serves as an excellent model.

The idea of future robots playing the World Cup champs ignited a media buzz. Stories soon appeared in major newspapers and magazines and on NPR. Financial backing followed, first from Sony and subsequently from other large corporations.

The first actual RoboCup debuted in 1997 in Japan, with 40 teams. This July in Padua, Italy, nearly 400 teams representing 50 countries are expected to compete in a nine-day competition in front of hundreds of thousands of fans.

The RoboCup American Open held at CMU in early May, a first-time event with 17 teams representing five countries, was modest in comparison. After watching the scrimmages in the days leading up to the event, I was prepared to be critical and then make an early getaway. But the more I watched, the more excited I became. And suddenly I found I couldn't tear myself away from the action. There was always one more match to see or one more robot to meet. I was hooked.

Ambience made all the difference. The robot search-and-rescue demos, the speeches by CMU officials referring to Pittsburgh as "RoboBurgh," the announcement of the founding of an international robot museum, and last, but certainly not least, ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), the world's most sophisticated humanoid robot, developed by Honda, all combined to suck me in. An engineering marvel, ASIMO paraded in a figure 8 on an elevated platform, climbed up and down stairs, played with the crowd, and converted the curious.

For the past year, I have been working on a book about robotics. Until RoboCup, I had been interviewing or spending time with roboticists individually or in small groups. I had been become somewhat skeptical about the entire industry. But when thousands of people with the same basic interests are brought together at the same place and time, something special happens. My doubt turned into passion.

On the last day of the event, the stadium, a converted ballroom in the student center, is packed. People are standing on bleachers, hanging over balconies, or squatting under tables. More fans, kids mostly, crouch in front of the bleachers, encroaching on the playing area. Every shot, in every game, no matter how awkward, how slow and sloppy or out of range, causes a commotion: moans, groans, cheers and shouts. Fans watching the final in the small-size event, which pits CMU against arch-rival Cornell University, the "Big Red" team, are rapt and boomingly vocal, encouraged by the cheerleading Veloso.

Nearly every team has come to the American Open as a result of Manuela Veloso's recruitment. Born in Portugal and educated at CMU, Veloso speaks with a distinctive accent and often twisted syntax, but her passion is contagious. Australian roboticist Brett Browning describes her as "a human cyclone ... She enters a room, interacts with people, and they start feeling motivated. Then she leaves and people feel suddenly turned on and slightly stunned and don't know why."

Veloso has an open and genuine manner, with a plain, conservative (though deceiving) appearance: Black straight hair streaked with gray. Rimless glasses with black stems. White cotton blouse. Gray skirt. Flat black shoes with straps. No makeup. Her passion for robotics explodes in straightforward and infectious bursts.

Manuela loves the crowds, but today she's nervous about how her "leetle robots" will react. Yesterday at the semifinal events, the brightly colored T-shirts of some of the kids who had crowded too close to the playing area distracted a team made up of Sony's AIBO robot dogs. Color-coding is the key to how RoboCup robots see. The ball is orange. The goals are yellow and blue. There are field markers of varying pastels. "That's their map of the world," Manuela says. Then last night some of the visiting students began flipping the light switches, which may have caused problems in the robots' vision systems. Perfect calibration is critical.

Before the start of the Cornell final, Manuela welcomes all the people who have come from throughout the Americas, including Mexico and Chile. Veloso greets everyone she can think of, including her dentist, whom she spots, buried in the crowd. She even offers a few words of encouragement to her adversaries from Cornell.

Beating Big Red is important, she admits. In 1998 and 1999, Carnegie Mellon defeated everyone else in the small-size division. But Cornell, under the leadership of engineer Raffaello D'Andrea, created an entire graduate program in robotics around RoboCup. Cornell significantly raised the level of competition by developing more sophisticated hardware and developing special ball-control dribblers that can shoot with ferocity and accuracy. The past three years, Cornell twice defeated CMU and won two championships. This year may be different, Veloso says, although win or lose, Cornell's commitment to RoboCup has advanced research and development and is an endorsement of her vision.

"It's the competition," Veloso says, "that's what drives everybody." But it is more than competition, more than a need to revolutionize robotics, she admits. The awesome investment in time and energy required of roboticists leads to a special bond between the scientists and their machines.

"I get involved at a level that is not just scientific," Veloso says. "If my robots are not doing the right thing, I start screaming and shouting. I suffer tremendously when they don't do the right thing. You suffer more, and this is the worst part, when you know that they are doing the right thing in the lab and then everything goes crazy on the playing field."

The word "suffer" struck a chord at RoboCup that many other roboticists could relate to. At this still early state of robotic development, even achieving a semblance of autonomy is incredibly difficult and frustrating. I thought back to the practice sessions and scrimmages I had observed in the Robot Learning Lab and how hard the students worked, typing code, toying with their robots -- how late they worked to make certain that the vision systems of the robots were in synchronization with the lighting in the room, that the programs hadn't been corrupted, which often mysteriously happens, that the circuit boards hadn't shorted out. The possible annoyances and roadblocks went on and on.

"This is such a young field," Veloso says. "The systems we develop and work with are so fragile. It takes so long to make things right -- even for an instant." Many of the games at the American Open were postponed or forfeited because one or both of the teams could not function.

"Everything worked at home," says Rocky (Rachel) Velez, 17, a high school student from Lawrenceville, N.J. RoboCup Junior, new this year, brought high school students from Canada and from Minnesota, Ohio and Manhattan, as well as New Jersey, to participate in competitive events and a robot talent show.

"My robot was perfect in the lab -- and dead in competition. I'm so depressed. But," she adds, "remember what happened to Bill Gates when he first demonstrated Windows XP to his stockholders?"

"What happened?" I ask.

"The blue screen of death."

Rocky, a Presidential scholar entering Caltech next fall, says that she went to a robotics conference at Princeton the previous year, and when she saw her first real robot, she was ready to "put my life on the line for robotics -- to dedicate the rest of my life to the field. I don't get the emotional high I get from robots from anything else." She's invested six months, every day after school, building her robot and programming it for the American Open. "Now it doesn't work." But she's philosophical. "But robots are always frustrating. You repair the problem no matter how long it takes and you move on. It is just like life."

Scott Lenzer, one of Manuela's graduate students, stayed up nearly all night to determine why the CMU goalie suddenly couldn't recognize the ball, after performing perfectly in the lab. Lenzer finally discovered that the vision system wasn't distinguishing between red and orange. (The ball is orange and one team is red.) "How did you finally figure it out?" I ask.

"Painfully," he says, "quite painfully."

Perhaps roboticists are masochistic -- or just plain crazy. The longer I hung out at the American Open, the more I realized that more discussion centered on the process -- that gantlet of trial and error and the challenge and triumph of making their robots work, if just for a magic moment -- than on anything else. "It's the frustration that keeps me going," says Sarah McGrath, a junior engineering student from the University of Manitoba, "the fascination of creating something, no matter how long it takes."

"You mean," I say, "you are not a geek -- you are an artist?"

"I mean, I am both, and you of all people should be able to relate. It's like writer's block, except it is programmer's block. And I am like Tolstoy. He struggled and suffered his art," she tells me. "I love the pain," she adds. "Because when you have a breakthrough, when something works, it is such a rush."

Mike Bowling, who recently earned his Ph.D. studying under Veloso, chooses another allusion, completely incompatible with Tolstoy, but in some ways profound: golf. "You hit the ball one time well, I mean really well, and then you devote the rest of the year trying to duplicate that perfect shot. That is how I describe the obsession of robotics."

This is why Veloso and Sarah McGrath and Scott Lenzer and Brett Browning and so many others I met at the American Open are so impassioned. When their robots work, "they are beautiful and amazing and quite literally unbelievable," Veloso says. The fact that you, a human being, have achieved the magic milestone of re-creating, if only for an instant, a real living creature that thinks and acts on its own, is really quite remarkable. And the frustration and failure that precede it make the moment of triumph all the more astonishing and satisfying and worthwhile.

As I watched match after match, I finally came to understand this obsession for frustration, aggravation and triumph, the slow, painful building up of tension and the sheer magnificence of release. The AIBOs, no matter how slow, awkward and artificial, were actually playing soccer -- scoring goals, blocking shots, dribbling and passing -- by themselves. No one at the controls. These RoboCup guys had achieved the loop -- cognition, perception and action -- for which Veloso and all the RoboCup addicts are constantly striving.

Now, seconds before the start of the game between Cornell and CMU in the small-size class, Veloso's arms are around her team members. She peers over the table lined with laptop computers, stretches her body toward the robots on the playing field, chews on her knuckles. Her eyeballs are popping with tension. The robots are lined up. The announcer counts down: "Three, two, one."

Cornell immediately takes control of the ball, but suddenly, a CMU robot streaks forward, steals the ball, drives down the field, and scores. Later, at the end of the first half, with CMU leading 9-0 -- an incredible, unbelievable upset in the making -- team captain Jim Bruce still obsesses: "We have to make some adjustments during halftime," he announces.

"Don't you dare," Veloso says, laughing and poking him in the stomach. "Don't change anything. For once, this is perfect."

By Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, editor of the journal, Creative Nonfiction, is author of a number of books, including his upcoming memoir, "Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather." He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

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