Just a little heads-up here because in June 2020, 3,500 competitors from 45 countries and 40,000 spectators will be descending on Bor...

RoboCup 2020: the robot football world cup is coming to Bordeaux!

Just a little heads-up here because in June 2020, 3,500 competitors from 45 countries and 40,000 spectators will be descending on Bordeaux for RoboCup, the annual robot football world cup, which is being held at the Parc des Expositions in the Lac district to the north of the city. It could be a lot of fun. 

So, what’s it all about? Basically, in the mid-1990s, the Japanese scientist Hiroaki Kitano came up with a 21st-century challenge to pick up where the 1996 and 1997 Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov chess matches left off. Kitano’s suggestion was that, come 2050, a team of robots would be able to take on and defeat the human world champions in a game of football (soccer). The RoboCup tournament was born and next year’s event in Bordeaux will be the 24th of its kind, and each year the robots are getting more versatile, fast, precise and powerful. 

Of course, what can first come across as an unusual day out to watch robots aiming to kick a ball all the way into a goal has far deeper implications: RoboCup is in fact a high-level competition that puts robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to the test, and using football as the medium is incredibly demanding for all the skillsets at play, incorporating limitless events, combinations and variables that make it a much tougher proposition than the two-dimensional chess moves perfected by IBM’s Deep Blue! What is more, the AI and robotic capabilities being trialled in these events have countless potential real-world applications in areas ranging from health to rescue operations.

Accordingly, over the seven days of the June 2020 event in Bordeaux, beyond the football tournaments which run across various categories (humanoid, standard, mid- and small-sized, and simulated), there are a host of contests being held in the fields of home, rescue and industrial robotics. In most of these disciplines, parallel junior tournaments will also be held. Throughout the event, visitors will also be able to take in an extensive exhibition area and wide-ranging conference programme. 

Officially hosted by the University of Bordeaux in close partnership with the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region and Bordeaux Métropole, the organizers are secretly hoping for a home team victory: Bordeaux University lecturer Olivier Ly, who is one of the leading lights of the organization steering committee, has so far led his “Rhoban” team to RoboCup wins across various categories in 2016, 2017 and 2018. He is aiming to repeat that at this year’s event in Sydney… which would then set France up for a fifth title in 2020! 

So, it’s fun and technically fascinating, but is robot soccer as exciting as real, live entertainment sport? Judging by the promotional videos showcased by the RoboCup team at an event I attended to introduce the event to press and partners, the matches between humanoid robots are a little like watching life in slow motion, although there is a definite sense of adrenalin that builds up when a team is on the verge of scoring, and the ball is either parried by a tumbling robot goalkeeper or makes it over the line for a goal. However, the clips that were shown of the small-size automatic vacuum cleaner-like robots darting around the pitch like there was no tomorrow suggested they and their shots were almost impossible to counteract, and could almost certainly give bona fide footballers a good run for their money… so a 2050 robotic victory against the humans may not be as far-fetched as it sounds! 

> Official RoboCup France website, including information about the 2020 event: www.robocup.fr
> Here are video highlights from a 2018 RoboCup match between France's Rhoban team and Iran's MRL:

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