Robot soccer at UofT

One of the few things I didn’t like at UofT’s computer science department was the lack of robotics courses in the undergraduate curriculum. This becomes all the more puzzling if you take into consideration the fact that UofT excels in teaching and researching artificial intelligence: computer vision, check, machine learning, double check, cognitive robotics, check, multi-agent systems, also check. It seems to me that the only thing missing is a couple of professors whose primary focus would be to create the necessary hardware that would provide a testbed for all those research efforts. Until that hardware becomes a reality though, some friends of mine and I thought that it would be a good idea to try out participating in RoboCup’s Simulation League.

RoboCup is a robotics competition whose aim is to promote artificial intelligence by creating robots, either actual moving hardware or just software-simulated agents, that will play soccer against each other. It’s (ambitious) goal is that by the year 2050 a team of humanoid robots will be able to beat the World Cup champions in soccer (say Brazil for instance), proving that the field of artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where machines can beat humans in an activity that requires elaborate motor skills, team strategy, and coordination. Personally, I find the fact that humans are striving to build machines that will beat them in a popular sport quite scary (and pointless) — I think Garry Kasparov won’t disagree. Nonetheless, until (and if) that happens, I believe that it is absolutely worthwhile to participate in RoboCup, simply because one can learn so much by the the engineering and artificial intelligence challenges involved in that effort.

Long story short, we convinced one of our professors, Steve Engels to supervise a fourth-year course whose topic would be the creation of a team for RoboCup’s Simulation League. About fifteen students were interested in taking this (summer) course, some of them for credit and others as volunteers. The students were split into four teams, each of which competes against the others every week. This way provides a way to set a benchmark by which to compare the progress of different teams. We used the official RoboCup soccer simulator and its incredibly detailed and helpful documentation. Fortunately, despite of the lack of previous experience of everyone who is involved, the course is going pretty well. See for example what one of the teams has been up to:

The bulletin board for the course is here and, admittedly, it doesn’t do the course much justice but I’ll do my best to make it a bit more informative. A lot of emails went back and forth discussing documentation, the pluses and minuses of available libraries for C++, Java and Python as well as other issues. Those notes will be very helpful for future teams who are considering the possibility of participating in the competition, so I’ll make sure to include them in the above board. As for the future of the course at UofT, it seems that it has attracted enough interest from students, so it will be continued, at least for another semester in a different format. Greg is working on it.


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