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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 March, 2004, 02:40 GMT
Robots battle to be the best
By Clark Boyd
In San Francisco

Thousands of intelligent, powerful robots are descending on San Francisco this weekend.

Soccer robots
The bots set their sights on scoring
But this is not some nightmare scenario dreamed up in Hollywood - it is the first annual Robolympics.

The two-day event is being organized by the Robotics Society of America, (RSA), which has been hosting various robotic competitions since 1977.

With the Robolympics, the group hopes to bring together the various styles of competition, and put them under one roof.

It sees the event as a way to foster and promote engineering creativity and excellence worldwide.

In a recent interview with a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper, David Calkins, President of the Robotics Society of America, explained his rationale for launching an all-encompassing international competition.

"I've been doing robot shows since 1998, and I've met all types of robot builder, from welders and machinists who construct huge combat robots to people who create autonomous sumo androids, and I realised that none of them ever talked to each other.

"So I decided, 'I'm gonna put you all in the same building at the same time, and you're gonna like it.'"

Smash and burn

The world-class robotic competitors hail from 11 different countries, including Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Slovenia. Australia, Singapore, Spain and Great Britain will also represented.

Robots on fire
The robot battles can be a fiery affair
The bulk of the competitors, though, will be American.

The Robolympians will smash, burn, fight and race their way through some 33 different events that are scheduled.

The first, second and third place 'bots will get the traditional gold, silver and bronze medals.

But unlike their human athlete counterparts, the winning robots will also claim cash prizes for their human builders, most of whom are amateur engineers.

The main draw will of course be robotic combat - the kind made famous by internationally televised programmes such as BattleBots and Robot Wars.

San Francisco makes a fitting site for this part of the event. The Bay Area considers itself to be the birthplace of this kind of competition.

But at the Robolympics, the combat competition will be expanded to include everything from 340 pound (150 kg) giants smashing each other to pieces, to teams of one pound (1/2 kilo) featherweights swarming each other in a destructive flurry.

Other Robolympics events include robot soccer, Japanese-style sumo wrestling, and a two-legged robot race.

Learning curve

However, more than just athletic prowess promises to be on display.

Some bots may not survive the contest
In another event, robots will teach themselves how to get out of mazes - the fastest one out, of course, is the winner.

The Line Slalom competition will see 'bots racing each other down a 10-foot curved track.

There will be no human remote control though. These robotic athletes will have to negotiate the course on their own, processing the information and data themselves.

The RSA says that these kinds of learn-as-you-go competitions will highlight the kind of artificial intelligence that people will soon see in their day-to-day lives.

The Robolympics will also give builders a chance to swap ideas and improve upon their designs.

"After all," says a note on the RSA website, "why should athletes have all the fun?"

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production.

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