After losing narrowly in the final last year, Bowdoin’s “Northern Bites” are hoping they can go all the way at this year’s RoboCup US Open. The tournament features robotic soccer teams from five colleges and universities across the country. The University of Pennsylvania, Denver University, The University of Texas at Austin—aka “Austin Villa”—and the University of Miami are all heading to the Brunswick campus for the two-day contest.
Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown is academic advisor for the Northern Bites. He said the goal of the tournament is two-fold: firstly, to make working on robotics and artificial intelligence fun, “but it also aims to advance science.” And he said it turns out that soccer is not only fun, but it’s hard to do, “so working on soccer, you solve all the same problems that the people who are trying to make self-driving cars for Google are solving.”
While Chown hopes the Northern Bites can win the tournament this year, he said it’s as much about collaboration and learning as it is about competition. “It’s a chance for all the US teams to get together, share ideas and have some practice. We collaborate and share notes before during and after the championship.” Every year, he said, the rules are made progressively harder and this year’s big challenge is dealing with a new ball. “Before this year we’ve always had a red ball, which the robots can easily recognize, but now the organizers have introduced a traditional, soccer ball design, with black and white squares, which is harder for the robot to see.”
Listen to interview with Eric Chown (audio may take a few seconds to load):
When the tournament kicks off at 1pm on Friday April 22nd, spectators will notice that the robots all look identical when they take to the mini soccer pitch (about 20 feet by 30 feet) inside the Sidney Watson arena.
“This is really a software contest,” said Chown. “All teams are issued with the same type of robot – in this case it’s the standard platform league variety, just under 2 feet in height – and it’s up to us to program it.” Chown said these ‘bots have to think for themselves when they’re out there playing. They have to analyze the images flashing before them and decide when to pass, when to dribble and when to shoot, so new team members undergo a steep learning curve in how to write programming code.
Megan Maher ’16, a computer science and math major, is team co-captain. She’s been involved in RoboCup since her sophomore year. “Throughout the year we organize weekly meetings and talks so people can share knowledge, because the code base we work with is so extensive that it’s really hard for people to just jump in, especially first-years.” Next year Maher is going to California to work as a research director at Apple. “I”ll be working with computer vision and machine learning systems, so what I’m doing right now has a lot of relevance.”
The other co-captain is computer science major Nicole Morin ’16. “A lot of being a team captain is getting new members on board,” she said, “and this year has been a good one.” Between 10 and 20 students have been involved with the team throughout the year, she said, “and about eight of us are staying on over during the summer to go and compete in the world RoboCup championships in Leipzig, Germany at the end of June.” In 2007 Bowdoin’s Northern Bites won the RoboCup worldcup.
Corinne Alini ’18 describes herself as a “very active team member,” who started doing RoboCup as a first-year. Being involved in this, she said, presents her with problems that aren’t taught in the classrooms: “For example the vision system is not something we touch on in our academic courses, so it really provides a fun way of expanding our knowledge.” She said there’s also the excitement of tackling a challenge that’s not been done before: “If you’re in class, every project you do has been done before by some smart person. But here we’re all creating stuff that we’re researching and testing as we go. You cannot go and google the answer.”
It’s this commitment to problem-solving that lies at the heart of the sharp advances the tournament has seen in the ability of the robots, said Professor Eric Chown. “We started competing in RoboCup in 2005, and every year the rules are tightened. We change what’s on the field to make it a little harder for the robots.” The next step is to move the game into an outdoor setting, said Chown, while the eventual goal is, by 2050, to have a team of robots that can perform as well as humans and compete with the real FIFA world champions. Which means that the robots are going to have to be able to understand and follow the regular rules of soccer: “the robots aren’t complex enough to do that at the moment,” said Chown, “but we do have lots of rules though. For example they’re not allowed to push each other for more than a second or so. They’re coded to stop doing that, and I’m sure one day they’ll have to be programmed with code that prevents them from taking a dive as well!”