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Friday, November 27, 1998 Published at 01:08 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

The search for robo-Ronaldo

Robo-football has developed a keen following in Singapore

In Singapore, football fever has taken on a new form.

Listen to Larry Jagan's match report from Singapore
Twenty-one teams of smart robots from Singapore, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States are gathering at the National University of Singapore to compete for the Robo Cup - and to become champions of the Asia-Pacific region.

This is part of the Robot World Cup initiative that aims to develop artificial intelligence technology.

The hope is to produce, within about 50 years, full-size humanoids able to challenge and even beat the real World Cup players of the next millennium

Each team fields five potential robo-Ronaldos on a pitch the size of a ping-pong table.

Cameras suspended over the field are linked to central computers which issue commands to the individual robots. Each has a specific role - there are two defenders, two attackers and one goalkeeper.

But the match is overseen by a human referee. Organiser and leading Robo-football researcher Chua Yeo Chung says they haven't yet managed to automate the necessary skills.

Practical applications

The founder of the championships, Japanese researcher Dr Hiroaki Kitano, says the games are also designed to help develop research in areas of artificial intelligence, computer vision, communications and robotics.

[ image: Singapore: Ambitions to become the first intelligent island]
Singapore: Ambitions to become the first intelligent island
Eventually, he says, these will have practical applications in such areas as disaster rescue: "If we have an earthquake or other large-scale disasters we would like to have an autonomous robotic system to go into the disaster site and rescue people."

But ignoring the more serious applications Robo-football is catching on fast in Singapore.

There are now teams in all the country's universities and polytechnics and there are even plans to introduce it into secondary school curriculum.

There are more Robo Cup researchers per capita in Singapore than anywhere else in the world.

Chua Yeo Chung says the government is keen to promote artificial intelligence as a way of developing the country into the so-called intelligent island.

"Robo Cup is something that the layman can associate with and enjoy the game," he says.

"On the other hand the researchers in Singapore can try out their research in the lab on something that the public can see."

In spite of enthusiastic support amongst technology-minded Singaporean's Dr Kitano says that the Ronaldos, Shearers and Owens of the real football world shouldn't consider hanging up their boots just yet.

"Five years down the road I think the performance will be much better and we'll probably see robots with four legs.

"This should be very entertaining - I think in the future it will be like the real World Cup, Formula 1 or the America's Cup."

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