AI Part 2:
Robotic Soccer Team Could Challenge Human Players by 2050

Kevin Maney
USA Today
June 29, 2001
In Littleton, Colorado, a company called Continental Divide Robotics
(CDR) is a result of work done at two AI labs—one at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other at the Colorado
School of Mines. CDR is about to offer a system that can locate any
person or object anywhere in the world and notify the user if that
person or object breaks out of a certain set of rules.

One of the first uses is for tracking parolees. The parolee would wear a pager-size device that uses Global Positioning Satellite technology to know where it is. Over wireless networks, the pager constantly notifies CDR's system about its location. If the parolee leaves a certain area or gets near a certain house, the CDR software will make decisions about the severity of the violation and whom to contact. That makes it more sophisticated than the electronic anklets now used on some parolees.

CDR's technology sounds simple, but it can involve a number of fuzzy choices. If a child being tracked goes just outside his limits, the system might decide to wait to see whether he comes right back in. And it might decide whether to send you a light caution or a major warning—or to call the police. "We are literally creating software that is reactive and proactive," says Terry Sandrin, CDR's founder. "It has the ability to make decisions."

At AT&T Labs, scientist Peter Stone spends a lot of his time preparing for Robocup, an annual robotic soccer challenge coming up in August. This year, it will be in Seattle and will pit AI research labs against one another. Rolling robots the size of pint milk cartons are armed with sensors and AI software. Like real soccer players, each of the 11 robots on a team has to know its job but also must react to situations and learn about the other team. At this point, the robots can pass the ball a little but still mostly act on their own. Their capabilities are improving quickly.

It seems frivolous, but getting AI-programmed robots to work as a team to achieve something would have real-world implications. One would be making the Internet more efficient. As Stone explains it, the Net is made up of thousands of computerized routers all moving data around but acting independently. If they could act as a team, they might figure out better ways to transmit the data, which would avoid clogged areas.

Aaron takes AI to the arts, which can be a little harder to believe. But Aaron creates original work on a computer screen—quite sophisticated work. Artist Harold Cohen taught the software his style over 30 years, feeding in little by little the ways he decides color, spacing, angles and every other aspect of painting.

After all that time, the program is finally ready, and computers are powerful enough to make it work. While still in development, it won fans such as computing legend Gordon Bell. Now, Kurzweil has licensed it and plans to sell it for U.S. $19.95. Load it on a PC and let the artist loose.

"There have been various experiments with having machines be an artist, but nothing of this depth," Kurzweil says. "Cohen has created a system that has a particular style but quite a bit of diversity—a style you'd expect of a human artist."

Other uses of AI range from the amazing to the mundane.

Computer As Companion

At Microsoft, Horvitz is trying to make your computer more of a companion than an inanimate tool. His software lets the computer learn about you. It learns who is important to you and who's not. It learns how to tell whether you're busy—maybe by how much you type, or by using a video camera to see whether you're staring at the computer screen or putting golf balls across the carpet.

It can combine that information to help manage your workload. If an e-mail comes in from someone very important, the computer will always put it through. If it's from someone not so important and you're busy, it can save the e-mail for later. The software can do that with all kinds of information, including phone calls coming in and going out of your office. The thinking at Microsoft is that these capabilities might someday be a part of every computer's operating system.

Schwab's AI implementation seems less grand but no less helpful. It's using AI technology from iPhrase that can comprehend a typed sentence. More than just looking for key words, it can figure out what you really mean, even if you make spelling mistakes. So you could type, "Which of these has the most revenue?" and get the answer you were looking for. Based on the page you have up, it would know what you mean by "these." On Schwab's Web site,, this is supposed to help users find information.

Beyond all the near-term uses of AI, there's the nearly unfathomable stuff.

The trends that brought AI from the failures of the mid-1980s to breakthrough success 15 years later will continue. Computers will get more powerful. Software will get more clever. AI will creep closer toward human capabilities.

If you want a glimpse of where this is heading, look inside MIT's AI lab. Among the dozens of projects there is Cog. The project is trying to give a robot humanlike behaviors, one piece at a time. One part of Cog research is focused on eye movement and face detection. Another is to get Cog to reach out and grab something it sees. Another involves hearing a rhythm and learning to repeat it on drums.

A Brain Like a Cat's

In Belgium, Starlab is attempting to build an artificial brain that can run a life-size cat. It will have about 75 million artificial neurons, Web site reports. It will be able to walk and play with a ball. It's supposed to be finished in 2002.

Labs all over the globe are working on advanced, brainlike AI. That includes labs at Carnegie Mellon University, IBM and Honda in Japan. "We're getting a better understanding of human intelligence," Kurzweil says. "We're reverse-engineering the brain. We're a lot further along than people think."

But can AI actually get close to human capability? Most scientists believe it's only a matter of time. Kurzweil says it could come as early as 2020. IBM's Horn says it's more like 2040 or 2050. AT&T's Stone says his goal is to build a robotic soccer team that can challenge a professional human soccer team by 2050. He's serious.

In many ways, an artificial brain would be better than a human brain. A human brain learns slowly. Becoming fluent in French can take years of study. But once one artificial brain learns to speak French, the French-speaking software code could be copied and instantly downloaded into any other artificial brain. A robot could learn French in seconds.

A tougher question is whether artificial intelligence could have emotions. No one knows.

And a frightening question is whether AI robots could get smarter than humans and turn the tables on us. Kurzweil, technologist Bill Joy and others have been saying that's possible. Horn isn't so sure. Though raw computing power might surpass the brain, he says, "that doesn't mean it will have any of the characteristics of a human being, because the software isn't there to do that."

Horvitz has a brighter outlook, which at least makes the AI discussion more palatable. He says humans are always getting better at guiding and managing computers, so we'll stay in control. "Most of us (in AI) believe this will make the world a better place," he says. "A lot of goodness will come of it."

Artificial Intelligence Part 1: AI Isn't Just a Movie; Machines Today Can "Think"

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