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Saturday, August 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Man and machine take the field

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bernhard Bedel watched as the goalie on his soccer team tried in vain to block a shot from an opposing player. "Uh-oh," he said, laughing.

The goalie was impassive, and not just because this was a practice. The player was a robot that plays with laser scanners and cameras and gets around on three wheel-like balls.

Today, Bedel's team from the University of Freiburg in Germany will begin defending its world robot-soccer title in RoboCup 2001, the robot version of soccer's World Cup. The robots are still slow and clunky, but tournament organizers predict that by 2050 — they think far ahead — they will be able to develop a team of autonomous robots that would be able to beat the human World Cup championship team.

Schedule of events


RoboCup 2001's round-robin competition will take place today, tomorrow and Monday. Quarterfinals, semifinals and finals will be played Thursday, with the grand finale and award ceremonies Friday.

RoboCup and related events are open to the public and will take place 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. today through Monday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. to noon Friday.

Admission is $10 for adults ($20 for a pass good for all RoboCup competitions and exhibits) and $5 for children ($10 for the pass). For more information, call the Washington State Convention and Trade Center at 206-219-4522.

The fifth annual RoboCup, which runs through Friday at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, is being held in conjunction with the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, which will feature symposiums, lectures and tutorials from experts on artificial intelligence. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will give the keynote address Tuesday.

The soccer games may be just for fun, but the technology used to create and operate the players could also help build robots to rescue victims of disasters, said Hiroaki Kitano, president of the RoboCup Federation. Just like soccer players, rescuers must coordinate their efforts, navigate obstacles and react rapidly, he said.

In a disaster such as an earthquake, time is critical. "If a building is in a dangerous state, it takes many hours or even days before a building is safe for rescuers to be in there," said Tucker Balch, who is helping run a robot-rescue exhibition at the conference. "We could afford to put robots in there right away."

Robots in Japan already provide interactive companionship for hospitalized children and walk frail elderly people down hallways, said Bob Bishop, chairman and chief executive officer of Mountain View, Calif.-based SGI, formerly Silicon Graphics. One day, they will be able to help fetch food and medications for the elderly, perform physical therapy on them, and guide them down stairs, he said.

People already do those things, but with elderly populations growing in developed countries, finding human assistants will become increasingly difficult, Bishop said.

Artificial intelligence is already a part of our daily lives, although we might not realize it, said Tom Mitchell, professor of learning and artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Robotlike technology is used in speech-recognition devices that allow keyboard-free dictation, in automatic brakes in cars, and it helps doctors perform surgery.

As technology improves, "we will move from artificial intelligence to artificial consciousness and, possibly even as we move forward, to artificial emotion," Bishop said.

To some people, that may seem scary — or even dangerous. For example, robots could one day be ordered to track down and kill people, acknowledged Manuela Veloso, general chair of RoboCup and an associate professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

"But all technology has good and bad uses," Veloso said. "It's up to us as humans to decide how we are going to make use of the opportunities we have with artificial intelligence."

David Olson can be reached at 206-464-2717 or dolson@seattletimes.com.

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