Science
5:17 am
Wed January 15, 2014

Peter Stone Can't Get Enough Of Robots Playing Soccer

Originally published on Tue January 21, 2014 5:21 pm

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And later this year, billions of people around the world will become obsessed by sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: The World Cup, the pinnacle of soccer, starts this June, in Brazil. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca will be one of those obsessed, screaming fans. It's not often Joe gets to do a story that mixes science and soccer, but as part of his new project, Joe's Big Idea, he found a computer scientist who actually studies soccer using robots as players. So Joe felt compelled to investigate.

I love watching soccer matches. I really do. I get it why soccer is called the beautiful game. It's played with a mixture of speed, skill and cunning.

Robot soccer, on the other hand...

...is not quite so beautiful.

Alison is a two foot tall robot.

Hi, Alison. I'm Joe.

She 's made of white plastic and looks like a robot.

By robot standards, she's a scoring machine.

There's a right foot kick, and the ball is heading, and goal. Oh, that was exciting.

As I watched, Alison scored several times into an empty net. But by human standards, well, how do I put this gently, I've seen toddlers do better.

She got up, she tripped over, she took - oh, she's got a little balance problem.

Despite the clunkiness, Peter Stone thinks robot soccer is also a beautiful game. Stone is a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. He's built an indoor soccer field in his lab where he puts his robot players through their paces.

You shouldn't be surprised that a serious scientist is studying a game as part of his serious research. Computer scientists have been doing that for a long time soccer's just the latest.

In many ways, soccer raises things up to a completely different level compared to chess and "Jeopardy" and other things because it happens in the physical world. It's not just an information competition.

There are two huge problems for anyone trying to get robots to play soccer. One is the robots themselves.

Stone isn't working with the most agile humanoid robots ever created. Those are generally research prototypes that are much larger, expensive to design and build, and hard to come by. But even the newest robot wouldn't be mistaken for a Brazilian soccer star.

The other problem is computational.

If you gave me a robot that is as agile as a person right now, I don't think that we could just, you know, immediately put it on a field and it would be able to beat people yet.

Stone says he and his colleagues are still learning how to turn the rules humans use in soccer - rules they seem to know instinctively - into a set of instructions that will inform a robot what to do.

The robot has to make the right decision at all times, not just some of the time. And we spend a lot of our time when the robot does something that we're not pleased with we want to go and figure out what were the conditions that caused that, and that, you know, really forces us to analyze the decision-making part of the code very, very closely.

Judging by the extremely clunky robotic players today, it's hard to believe a team of humanoid robots could ever beat a team of human players, but some computer scientists believe that really could happen as soon as the middle of this century. Stone says don't bet against it.

From the Wright Brothers first flying an airplane to landing a man on the moon was on the order of 60 or 70 years; from discovering the double helix to sequencing the whole human genome is about 50 years; from the first computer to beating Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion, is 50 years.

So maybe a robot soccer team will beat a human team by 2050, or 2060 at the latest

But one of the lessons you learn when making time predictions is, you know, the safe thing to do is predict a date after your career is likely to be over. Because otherwise people will come back and say, you said it was going to happen by now.

Right.

Yes. I predict NPR will cover it when it happens. I just don't have to do it.

I'll be sitting in a rocking chair someplace - I hope.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

There's a right-foot kick and the ball is heading for the goal but didn't quite make it. Alison follows up, again, lines it up, and goal.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

NPR's business news starts with white smoke.

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner remains grounded in Tokyo after smoke was seen coming from the plane. Engineers noticed white smoke coming from the Japan Airlines' jet during a pre-flight maintenance check. No passengers were aboard, but this incident captured attention because the whole fleet of 787s was grounded just last year because of concerns about batteries catching fire.

And a much-anticipated computer game has finally been released, but you can't find it in stores. It's only being made available to the gamers who loved the project so much, they put in their own cash to bankroll it.

From member station KQED, Aarti Shahani has this report.

The game-maker Tim Schafer was tired of big money corporations deciding which creative projects make it and don't. So, he went online and led a revolution.

The people just want to get together and organize and fund something themselves.

Two years back, he asked for $400,000 on Kickstarter.com. And he got 3.3 million from more than 87,000 backers.

Yesterday morning, Schafer released "Broken Age" - his first point-and-click adventure game in 20 years. It's a coming of age story about two souls leading parallel lives.

Shay is on a spaceship all by himself being raised by a computer. And Vella is living in small time where she's been selected by her peers to be sacrificed to a giant monster to save the town.

"Broken Age" features voicing by a star-studded cast - including actors Jack Black and Elijah Wood as Shay.

(As Shay) The ship takes care of me.

(As character) Whole grain nutrients taste?

(As Shay) Feeds me, entertains me. I think in its own weird way, it loves me.

Since Schafer's crowd-funding success, other gamers have gone online to raise millions for their projects. And his game studio DoubleFine is already asking supporters to invest in part two.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco.

Well, the Japanese beverage giant Suntory announced plans to buy Beam, Inc. for $16 billion. Beam, of course, is the maker of bourbons - including Jim Beam. Most bourbons are made in Kentucky, in fact, they're supposed to be.

And as Rick Howlett, of member station WFPL reports, many people hope this deal preserves the drink's uniquely Kentucky heritage.

Suntory has been in the beer and spirits industry in Japan for more than a century, but this is what many Americans think of when they hear the name.

(As Bob Harris) For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.

That's Bill Murray in the 2003 film "Lost in Translation," in which he plays an actor who goes to Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. If the deal is approved by shareholders as expected, the name Suntory is likely to become more familiar in the U.S. in the months ahead.

Bourbon's popularity has exploded in recent years, especially in Japan and other Asian markets. The Kentucky Distillers Association calls the Suntory purchase of Beam exciting news, and evidence that the bourbon renaissance is strong.

Carla Carlton agrees, and believes any qualms about the new owners will be put to rest.

I know some people were talking about how, you know, this is terrible, we're being taken over by a Japanese company. But, I mean, I guess I see it as an investment in Kentucky.

Carlton is a contributing writer for "The Bourbon Review" and blogs under the name The Bourbon Babe. She predicts Suntory will embrace bourbon's colorful history and its appeal to tourists who flock to Kentucky's distilleries.

Bourbon is very - it's very much an American product and it must be by law, so it will still be made here in Kentucky. I don't see them making huge changes. I mean I think they're buying, you know, the product for what it is now and will try to maintain that as much as possible.

Suntory officials say they don't plan any management changes at Beam's American headquarters in Illinois.

Cheers.

Cheers.

Cheers.

All right.

In Kentucky, the bourbon celebration continues. Coincidentally, on the day of the sale announcement, industry and government leaders gathered in Louisville to announce the Kentucky Bourbon Affair this spring.

It's a fantasy camp, of sorts, for bourbon connoisseurs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Congress declaring Bourbon America's only native spirit.

Eight distilleries, including Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, are participating in bourbon-making demonstrations, behind-the-scenes tours, and, of course, tastings.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer says an important element of bourbon's success has been the willingness of its producers to work together on events such as this.

They're smart competitors. They realize by working together we can make the whole industry a lot bigger and you can see that in the numbers right now.

Fischer predicts more heady times are ahead for the bourbon industry. He says if this were a football game, we're in the first quarter.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville.

And here's a sound classical music fans in Minnesota haven't heard in a while.

The Minnesota Orchestra hasn't performed in its concert hall in Minneapolis in more than 15 months. The musicians were in a labor dispute. But yesterday, they agreed to a new contract ending the longest orchestral work stoppage in U.S. history.

Our last word in business today: Finally, the show will go on.

Musicians were locked out in 2012, after rejecting management's proposal to cut salaries by as much as 40 percent. During the 488-day standoff, the orchestra's music director resigned in protest, and the Minnesota Orchestra became a symbol for arts institutions struggling to match rising costs with declining attendance.

The new contract cut salaries by 15 percent. The musicians also agreed to pay a greater share of health care costs. They will at least return to work on an improved stage. The $50 million renovation of the orchestra hall in Minneapolis continued, even during the orchestra's ultimate showstopper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.