• Japanese robotics experts claim robots will beat humans at football by 2050
• Keio University of Tokyo recent winners of robot world cup in Lisbon
• New robot, VisiON, stands 38cm tall and operates independently of humans
"By 2050, our aim is to beat the winners of football’s World Cup and we are very confident that we will be able to do that" - Shu Ishiguro, head of Robot Laboratory in Osaka
Story in full THE footballers of tomorrow will have the midfield guile of Zinedine Zidane, the finishing ability of Andriy Shevchenko and the staying power of Roy Keane.
A Japanese consortium of robotics experts has thrown down the gauntlet to future players of the beautiful game by claiming their engineered humans will play mankind off the park within 45 years.
"By 2050, our aim is to beat the winners of football’s World Cup and we are very confident that we will be able to do that," said Shu Ishiguro, who heads Robot Laboratory in Osaka. "When we have accomplished that, we will have a society in which humans and artificial intelligence are completely in harmony."
Mr Ishiguro and his team are placing their faith in the offspring of VisiON.
Standing a mere 38cm tall and weighing just 2.4kg, VisiON would not be expected to trouble the defences of most professional football teams, but it has taken some vast strides in recent years.
Equipped with thighs that Steven Gerrard would be proud of, VisiON operates completely independently of human input, making its own decisions based on information that it perceives, and is able to recognise the football, approach it and deliver a hefty kick. It is also able to identify an opponent and shield the ball in much the same way as a human player does.
It might not be the fastest thing on two legs, but it does already have one very major advantage over human players.
"On top of VisiON’s head is a 360-degree vision sensor, meaning that it does not have to turn its head to see in any direction," said Mr Ishiguro.
Having eyes in the back of its head will deprive the crowds of the future of that standard warning "Man on!"
Widely regarded as the world’s leaders in robotics, Japanese experts have been working on bipedal machines capable of a broad range of tasks for several years. The decision to push ahead with a soccer-playing version was in part the result of robot world cup tournaments, the most recent of which was held in Lisbon, with the team from Tokyo’s Keio University winning the middle-size robot league and Osaka-based Systec Akazawa winning the humanoid league.
A remarkable 346 teams from 37 countries took part in the championships, and the next tournament, RoboCup 2005, is scheduled for July in Osaka.
While much of their energy is focused on football, robotics experts in Osaka are also busy developing more functional aides. Security robots come in the shape of dinosaurs and are programmed to stomp around offices; ankle-high vacuum cleaning robots are on the market already and Hospi is designed to make life easier for hospital staff by providing medical charts and taking X-rays.
At the 2005 World Expo, which opens in Nagoya in March, humanoid robots that can recognise faces and remember names will be on hand to give directions to visitors and help out in child-care facilities.
One area that researchers are not keen on tackling, however, is robot armies. "Down through human history, the weapon that has caused the most deaths has been the knife, so all technology has a risk, but what we do with this technology is up to human beings," Mr Ishiguro said. "I don’t think the idea of robot armies is a good one, but that’s not my decision."
He also dodges the question of a robot insurrection, a possibility that will not have escaped anyone in the industry after the release of the Will Smith film I, Robot.
"All these advanced technologies have an element of risk and we can warn of the dangerous aspects of robots in human society," Mr Ishiguro shrugs, "but cars, for example, successfully collaborate with humans and have been safely integrated into society.
"Everyone who saw the RoboCup could see the advantages of technology and, as long as its development is kept open to the public, there is going to be no danger. But developments in the future we must discuss at that time, as a society."
Mr Ishiguro is confident a player of steel and wire will one day lift the most prestigious trophy in football. "The important thing to remember is what you see here is just the beginning," says Mr Ishiguro.
VisiON has already perfected the victory pose. Reminiscent of Eric Cantona in his pomp, it leans slightly to one side, hands on hips and with the ball - and the world - at its feet.