(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the first time, Israel is sending a delegation to the RoboCup 2009 soccer tournament, which begins Monday in Graz, Austria.
In this tournament, the 25 teams have only three players, the players are all autonomous robots and the ultimate goal is to promote research and development in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.
RoboCup and its accompanying conferences have become an annual event since their inception in 1997. The Israeli delegation is participating in the RoboCup's standard platform league tournament, which is generally for graduate students and professors from leading universities worldwide. Though they've not been drawn against each other, Iran is another of the participating countries.
"Maybe people don't think of Israel when they think of robotics," said Gal Kaminka, the head of the Israeli team and an associate professor at Bar-Ilan University's Department of Computer Science. "But maybe they should."
RoboCup's aim is to use soccer and other athletic activities as a means to advance humanoid robotics - the types of robots that resemble humans and can assist with human activities, such as household tasks, said Kaminka.
Each country has a team of three robots - two players and a goalie - each of which is half a meter high. To ensure that the teams begin on even footing, the delegations used identical robots from one manufacturer. It was then up to the individual teams to customize their robots' software.
"It really becomes a brain competition - who can program the best brain," Kaminka explained to The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from Austria.
The Israeli team's human element comprises nine graduate students, programmers and researchers, including Kaminka, who specializes in artificial intelligence, robotics and applied philosophy, and Dr. Eli Kolberg of the university's School of Engineering. The team's members have been running their robots through multiple scenarios round-the-clock for the past few months.
Development in a situation like this is unique because it demands more than just programming genius - it also demands teamwork.
"If you have a better vision or walking algorithm, that doesn't automatically make you a better team," said Kaminka. "The challenge is to put everything together."
Kaminka anticipates that based on programming advances made by RoboCup delegations, robots will be used relatively soon in search-and-rescue missions and for domestic chores.
Even though, as first time participants, the Israeli team is not likely to win, being part of the competition itself is a big step, Kaminka said.
"It is a milestone for Israel, in terms of showing that we're on the map," he said.