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Move over Lionel Messi, here come the dribbling robots

sports Updated: Jul 01, 2013 01:43 IST

With the score tied 1-1, it's time for a penalty shootout in a tense soccer match between teams from Israel and Australia. As the Australian goalkeeper in his red jersey braces for the shot, the Israeli striker pauses. Then he breaks into a dance instead of kicking the ball.

Perhaps he can be forgiven: He's a robot, after all.

Welcome to the RoboCup, where more than a thousand soccer-playing robots from forty countries have descended on the Dutch technology Mecca of Eindhoven this week with one goal in mind: beat the humans.


The tournament's mission is to defeat the human World Cup winners by 2050 — creating technology along the way that will have applications far beyond the realm of sport.

To achieve the goal, organizers have created multiple competition classes — including small robots, large robots, humanoid rob-ots and even virtual robots — with plans to merge their techniques into a single squ-ad of all-star androids capable of one day winning a man vs. machine matchup.

For now, Lionel Messi doesn't need to look over his shoulder. Humanoid robots have difficulty keeping their balance, and the largest — human height — move more like, well, robots than world-class athletes.

While they have a long way to go, unlike with human players, there are no prima donnas among the robots. Each plays every position equally well, and they shift roles seamlessly. Goalkeepers have been known to come out and act as strikers. And when a bot gets a shot on goal, it rarely misses.

"That's the advantage a robot has over a human," says Dickens He, on the University of Pennsylvania's 'UPennalizers' team. "There are no mistakes: a robot does what it is programmed to do."

Tournament director Rene van de Molengraft says the humanoid bots range from as little as $5,000 for the standard platform bots, when bought in bulk, to $35,000 or more for handmade adult-size models, which are taller.

Still a bargain compared to the $75 million Barcelona just paid for Brazil star Neymar.