Blog: Robo-soccer?

Article By : David Benjamin

A bunch of electronics engineers are working feverishly on “the development of robotic soccer players which can beat a human World Cup champion team.” Really?

“People think footballers are all like robots. We can control everything on the pitch. But your heart is beating 200 times a minute. It’s very, very physical.”

— Didier Drogba

“Jaw-dropping” is a word I deplore. Yet, I came close to muffing a mandible when I encountered stories about a bunch of electronics engineers — clearly with too much time on their hands — working feverishly on “the development of robotic soccer players which can beat a human World Cup champion team.”

Really?

According to an explanation of this eccentric dream, “the idea of robots playing soccer was first mentioned by Professor Alan Mackworth” of the University of British Columbia in the early 1990s.

Note the word “professor.”

Accessing the World RoboCup website, I discovered that a fair amount of money went into studying the “financial feasibility” and “social impact” of lightning-fast, cat-quick robo-soccer teams humiliating the Germans, Brazilians and British hooligans at, say, the 2026 World Cup. The “researchers concluded that the project was feasible and desirable.”

Note the word “researchers.”

When a robot soccer league got launched in Japan, the whole mad scheme kicked into overdrive: “Within a month… they received overwhelming reactions from researchers outside of Japan.” By 1997, the “RoboCup games” drew 40 teams and “over 5,000 spectators.”

Mega-awesome, dude! With this much progress so fast, could it be possible that, within a decade, there will be cyborg athletes doing backflips and handsprings like Darryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, running the pitch from end to end at a clip that would make Usain Bolt look like a Paralympian on crutches?

To see how far robo-athletes have come, I uploaded videos of World RoboCup finals. The 2019 battle featured dwarfish robots, perhaps two feet tall, all outfitted vaguely like Imperial storm troopers from Star Wars. But not as agile. It took a moment for me to recognize that the video was not running in slow-motion. This event resembled not so much a soccer game as, perhaps, a rest-home excursion in which a dozen or so arthritic golden-agers shuffled gingerly (so as not, evidently, to rupture their catheter bags) in random directions, repeatedly bumbling into an annoying ball that kept getting in their way.

I immediately recalled Electric Football.

If you were a boy in the 1950s or ’60s, you eventually received, for Christmas, one of these toys. You got a miniature football field made of tin, with plastic goalposts and a whole lot of little plastic football men. The players stood on low pedestals mounted on a pair of wafer-thin plastic slivers. After laboriously lining up all 22 players at some line of scrimmage on the green tin field, and lodging a tiny flannel football in the clawlike hand of the quarterback, the kid who got this white elephant for Christmas would flip a switch. Electric current coursed through the strange device. The field commenced to vibrate. Suddenly, all the little wafer-mounted plastic players were in motion, but not in any sort of motion consistent with football. Some “players” would tremble forward, bumping randomly into one another. Others would skitter, seemingly in panic, to the sideline, bumping repeatedly, pathetically against the tin berm that marked the edge of their world. Some suffered spastic seizures and simply toppled over. The quarterback was as likely as not to execute a 180-degree spin and careen toward the wrong end zone, with the “ball,” and nobody in pursuit.

No kid I ever knew endured more than a half-dozen plays in Electric Football before consigning this feckless curiosity to the back of the closet.

If the video of the 2019 World RoboCup final is indication, the state of robotic soccer is a slightly more sophisticated and preposterously more expensive version of Electric (about $9.99) Football. This means there’s no imminent danger of seeing, at Wembley or Maracanã Stadium, some snotty humanoid super-Pelé as he (it?) leads the M.I.T. Fighting Androids to a 30-0 World Cup triumph.

But the point here is: What’s the point?

Advocates of robotic sports insist that their heroic efforts to make their replicants more fluid, nimble and quick will spawn advanced technologies that apply to dozens of other fields of endeavor. As they say on ESPN, “C’mon, man!” In those “other fields of endeavor,” aren’t there already lots of researchers working directly — not tangentially — to make their technologies more fluid, nimble and quick?

Put simply, robo-soccer, is a toy. And like Electric Football, not a good toy. Electric Football’s only real constituency was parents who, with a sigh of relief at finding something to give the brat for Christmas, bought it.

The only discernible constituency for the creation of a master race of robo-jocks is “professors and researchers” whose efforts summon to mind Samuel Johnson’s observation about “a dog’s walking on his hind legs.” He said, “It is not done well. But you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Dr. Johnson’s famous words call to mind a book by sociologist F.W. Howton, published in 1969, entitled Functionaries. Howton explained exhaustively, with examples, the distinction between “substantive rationality” and “functional rationality.” In the first, you do something because you should, because there is a positive purpose and a balanced consideration of consequences both good and bad. In functional rationality, you do something simply because you can, regardless of purpose or consequences, because your technology, tools and ambitions have vaulted far enough to make it possible — even if inadvisable.

Howton’s contemporaneous example of functional rationality was the war in Vietnam. Robo-soccer, just as useless as war but thankfully benign, is one of functional rationality’s current brainstorms.

Robotics researchers, like all of us, deserve to have a little fun, in their own weird way. But they are wide-eyed and foolish to even think about supplanting everyone else’s fun — watching real athletes playing real ball — with theirs.

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