Better than Ronaldo — Do we really need robots that play football?

They may have failed at the World Cup this year, but Germans are still football champions — at least with robots. But why teach robots to play soccer? DW went to the University of Bonn to find out.

At 135 centimeters tall (nearly 4.5 feet), with a white, wavy body and big black eyes, robot NimbRo OP2X is a source of pride for researchers at the University of Bonn. And rightly so.

This year, he helped his team take first place in the AdultSize League in the RoboCup — the world football competition for robots.

On the final fight, NimbRo pulled off a win against another German robot, Sweaty, the creation of scientists from Offenburg University.

NimbRo was born in the department of autonomous intelligent systems, housed in a brand new campus at the University of Bonn. Half of the facility is taken up by a 9 by 14 meter soccer field with artificial grass and goals. The other half is dedicated to computers, cables and changeable batteries.

Here, a team of researchers from all around the world is working on something that might sound like a joke at first.

They're teaching robots how to play football.

Not a simple game

Football might just be a game for us, but for a robot — and the programmers who operate it — it's hard work.

Related Subjects

"Walking is natural to humans, but robots need very complex algorithms to walk around and to just keep their balance," says Grzegorz Ficht, one of the researchers working on the project.

He turns on a button on NimbRo's body, and the red light on the head of the robot begins to glow. A hard drive starts to whirr loudly. Inside, there's a standard PC. Ficht, on his knees, lifts the robot. NimbRo stands without any help.

Every movement the robot performs is preprogrammed. But he's also able to make decisions on his own.

"He analyses the images, and segments the interesting parts," Ficht says. "He can recognize parts of the field, the center circle and ball itself, and then orient himself on the field based on that."

And, most importantly, he knows where to kick.

Universität Bonn Fußball-Roboter

Grzegorz Ficht, a researcher at Bonn University, explains how NimbRo OP2X works

Independent thinking 

What NimbRo cannot do is to learn by himself, though. Not yet, at least. 

"There are already robots that can understand semantics," Ficht says. "But for robots to be able to learn by themselves, you'd need much more developed algorithms that are only starting to be developed today."

Technologies like artificial intelligence, visual data processing and facial recognition have already found use in robotics. Recently, a social humanoid robot named Sophia, created by Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics, made headlines around the world. Sophia is able to imitate human gestures, sustain simple conversations and can convey more than 50 facial expressions.

USA UN Hauptquartier in New York Sophia humanoider Roboter

Sophia regularly gives TV interviews and is the first robot to receive national citizenship

More than a game

The yearly RoboCup competition is a good benchmark for humanoid robots, says Ficht. The ultimate goal of the researchers involved is to create a team of robots that can beat the real World Cup champions by 2050.

Making robots as good as humans — or even better — will do a lot more than merely entertain us. This technology can ultimately improve our lives.

"The idea is that we'll be able to deploy those robots to go in places where we don't want to send humans, and they could be semi-autonomous," Ficht says.

Natural disasters, nuclear catastrophes, space exploration — these are only a few areas where humanoid robots can be used in the future. Using robots as social workers and companions is another popular idea. The Japanese government, for example, is funding the development of robots that can take care of elderly people.

But … they'll steal my job!

Many, however, fear that the better robots can imitate humans, the more likely it'll be that they'll steal their jobs. Ficht finds this idea absurd.

He's optimistic that robots will do jobs that people don't want to do and that they'll create new jobs for people like him — for the operators, programmers and manufacturers of robots.

Standing next to the mini football field at the University of Bonn, we observe NimbRo in action. The robot is moving rather slowly and clumsily. Ficht walks after him to prevent the robot from falling. And this is the best soccer humanoid robot in the world.

It's hard to believe that, in some 30 years' time, he'd be able to outplay Cristiano Ronaldo. Let alone steal my job.

Roboy - nice to meet you!

He's probably one of the hippest humanoid robots at the moment: Roboy. He has a smooth skin and muscles and tendons, which give him an even more human-like appearance. Roboy can shake hands; he even talks and is able to show emotions - once in a while.

A sensitive robot

Another good example for humanoid robots is Justin, who hails from the German Institute for Aerospace (DLR). This little guys descends from technology - a robot arm - that spent five years on the International Space Station. He was made for space! But Justin can also do very earthly things such as window cleaning.

Scribbling robots

A trained writer needs a year to write a Torah scroll. The robot "bios" wrote it down in only ten weeks. Armed with a pen and ink, he drew a total of 304,805 Hebrew letters on a 80-meter roll of paper. But there's a snag: the work of robots is not kosher.

Wo keyi bang ni ma?

When it comes to gadgets, China is usually near the forefront. And that doesn't matter whether useful or fanciful gadgets are concerned. Humanoid robots are already responsible for different tasks in some Chinese restaurants, such as taking a guest's order.

Food is ready!

And of course - the small humanoid machines are also outstandingly qualified for serving the food. Robots don't get tired, they don't grumble - they just do their job. But if I were you, I wouldn't complain...

Robot chef

Robots are not only used as waitstaff, but also at the stove. Like here, but the scope of activities is limited to warming pre-prepared meals. The preparation and cooking needs to be done by a human colleague.

More machine than robot

But not all restaurant robots look as humanoid as the examples in this gallery. This one is apparently more functional - he doesn't have a head, arms or legs. But since he isn't working in front of guests, it's probably secondary.

At least entertaining!

So probably there are others responsible for the entertainment - like in the robot restaurant near Shanghai. The entertainment seems to go down well - more or less - as the comments on the internet show: "Fantastic experience but the food is horrible."