Hiroaki Kitano's dream

Hiroaki Kitano is known for having created the robotic dog AIBO and for being one of the directors of the Sony Computer Science Lab in Tokyo. In the early 90s, Hiroaki Kitano dreamed about creating biped robots able to perform actions superior to human actions. Ambitious, but at the same time realistic, he started the development of the 4-legged robotic dog AIBO that was commercialized; and he continued with the development of QRIO also from Sony, that was the first biped robot in history able to run. The dream of Hiroaki Kitano was, and still is, to be able to create a humanoid robot that is able to surpass the motor skills of a human being by the year 2050.

Hiroaki Kitano
Hiroaki Kitano, considered the father of AIBO. Photo taken by Joi Ito.

It is not an easy task to do, you can’t do it on your own. Kitano Hiroaki and his colleagues at Sony Computer Science Lab came up with a great idea so that all the world could participate and keep the motivation during the development process of more and more advanced robots . They decided to create a Football World Cup played by teams in which players were robots, instead of humans. The final goal would be to be able to create a team of robotic footballers fully autonomous able to beat the best football team in the world by year 2050.

The first edition of the Robocup, the robotics world cup, was celebrated in Japan in 1997; 40 teams took part in it, almost all of them universities and Japanese companies. Last year more than 400 teams from more than 40 different countries competed in the championship. In Japan the Robocup is a well-known event for almost everybody, with widespread media following; some of the most important matches are broadcast on TV.

Aibos playing with a ball
AIBOs playing with a ball.

Robots that compete in the Robocup are completely autonomous. That is, during the competition no human is allowed to intervene remotely in the game. Robots decide by themselves in real-time the movements they will perform on the football pitch. To program a good artificial intelligence is key, even more important than having more advanced mechanical capabilities. To be able to win at the Robocup the human members of the teams should be able to know a lot about many disciplines: artificial intelligence, programming, maths, physics, mechanics, artificial vision, electronics, human anatomy, etc.

Miguel Universidad de Alicante Aibos
Miguel from the Universidad de Alicante at the Robocup 2005.

“At the beginning I thought in football because it is a game that is well understood by almost everybody and at the same time is complex enough to suppose a compelling challenge” said Kitano Hiroaki rambling about how the idea for a Robocup came up. Even though the Robocup looks like just a game, an expensive hobby of scientists and engineers from all over the world, and it could be that the goal of competing against humans could sound like a bit naive; the true purpose of the competitions is to increase the motivation to create better and better technology that has practical applications. For example, at the University of Tokyo a new surgeon robot is being developed using technology based on humanoid robots that competed at the Robocup in 2007. At Waseda University and Keio University rescue robots have been created that are already being used by Japanese firefighters; their first prototypes were originally developed to compete at the Robocup. These are only some of the examples of the advances achieved by universities all over the world thanks to the motivation needed to compete at the highest level at the Robocup.

Will robots be able to beat a human world cup champions? As of now the progress is good; there is still 40 years until the human vs robots game of the century.

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