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    Iran Has One of the Best Robot Soccer Teams in the World Right Now

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Official Iran RoboCup Promo

    Robots just wrapped up a game of soccer in Iran. There were cute, smiling humanoid robots, blocky erector set robots, and robots that looked they waltzed out of a Japanese anime film. There were robots from the Netherlands, from China, and from the United States. And they were all there, in a giant auditorium in Tehran, to try to score goals against all the other foreign robots. 

    Welcome to the 8th annual RoboCup Iran Open

    The Iran Open is a preliminary event for the world famous 2013 RoboCup competition, which will culminate in Europe later this year. And Iran has been heavily involved since the late 90s.

    The first RoboCup, short for Robot Soccer World Cup, kicked off in 1997 in the Netherlands, and it has been held annually ever since. The goal each nation is simple in concept: build a robot soccer team that could defeat a human one by 2050. Or, according to the official charter:

    "By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, complying with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup."

    Image: Wikimedia

    That is, to put it mildly, ambitious. Not-so-coincidentally, it should be noted, the nations that have tended to do best—the U.S., Iran, China—have low-ranking human soccer teams. There are four different divisions—different sizes and levels of complexity; there used to be a four-legged robot, for example—including a simulation division. There are also non-sport related events, like RoboRescue bots. 

    Image: Islamic Republic News Agency

    But mainly, for over 15 years, robot soccer players have gathered to clumsily kick balls through goal posts while other robots look on. And let's just say we're still a ways off from the age of robo-soccer champs. It's certainly totally impressive that, as you can see in the video above, robots can walk up to a ball autonomously and kick it through a goal—while avoiding a defender, too. 

    Image: Islamic Republic News Agency

    Yet at this rate, we'll be lucky if robots are swarming around the ball like 4-year-old pee-wees by 2050 (literally; the best bots are still super-tiny). These robotics teams basically have to evolve their soccer bots from a toddler taking his first swat at that checkered ball to Pele in 37 years. 

    Image: Robocup 2010, Wikimedia

    Regardless, it's a fascinating and fruitful competition, and the idea of Americans and Iranians setting aside their differences to hang out in a gym to play robo-soccer is a pleasant one, given all the blustery rage-speak between the nations' leaders.

    Image: Islamic Republic News Agency

    (Seriously, is some screenwriter on this one yet? Two opposing team members will totally forge a friendship over years of competition and mutual respect, but then be torn apart when the U.S. gets ready to invade Iran and tensions flare. Only then, years later, when the moment of truth arrives, some nuclear standoff over some miscommunication probably, the two opponents, now top-level military roboticists on each side, triumph over the odds and find a way to use their robots—together—to avert catastrophe at the last minute. Boom. You're welcome, Hollywood.) 

    Another interesting note is how seriously Iran takes the competition. The Iranian RoboCup National Committee appears to also be the country's primary government robotics division. It was formed in 2006, and is responsible for the country's non-soccer playing robotic endeavors as well, like ocean rescue drones and oil jetty robots. That's right: the desire to build humanoid sports bots gave rise to an entire nation's robotics program.

    But the pressing question remains: Who won the Robocup 2013? Iran did, apparently, followed by the Netherlands, China, and Japan. Looks like the U.S. didn't even place. Alas—there's always 2014. Unlike its flesh-and-bone counterpart, there's a RoboCup every year. And this wasn't even the main event—that'll be in the Netherlands this June.