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An AI trainer for robot football players? DeepMind is taking AI applications in sports to a whole new level

A Nordic robot with a human shape is terrorizing defenses in the English Football Premier League. Or so say the more than two million people that signed a formal petition to the UK Parliament demanding Erling Haaland was kicked out of the League. The 22-year-old Norwegian superstar, petitioners claim, is not really a human being but a hyper-athletic cyborg designed to score goals and humiliate his rivals with maximum efficiency.

Though it is pretty certain that young Halaand is in fact a human being, there may be more to this bizarre episode than just a joke. In fact, the reality toward which the petitioners are pointing may not be as far off as we might imagine. Could the day ever come in which humans and robots coexist on a football field?

robot football players

An AI trainer for digital humanoid football players

DeepMind is a London-based artificial intelligence subsidiary of Alphabet that has focused on developing neural networks and language models that can mimic human abilities in a variety of different activities. Their most famous achievement so far has been the creation of AlphaGo, a computer system that was able to beat the European champion Fan Hui in this ancient Chinese board game considered to be much more complex than chess. 

Lately, a group of researchers at DeepMind have been focusing on teaching an AI system to play football using a simulation that replicates the process of a human baby growing into a football player. 

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The training was divided into three phases. During the first one, the humanoids learned how to run by imitating motion-capture video clips of real humans playing soccer. Then, through trial-and-error machine learning, dribbling, and shooting. Finally, during the third phase, they were challenged to score goals in two-on-two matches with simplified rules, which led them to learn teamwork skills such as anticipating where to receive a pass. By the end of the three-phase training, the digital humanoids had been playing football for about 30 simulated years

True, these rather clumsy, puppetlike digital football players are still far from looking quite as elegant on the pitch as Zinedine Zidane or Diego Maradona, but they are actually executing very elaborate movements and making complex decisions. Now, the DeepMind team has taken a step forward and started using the AI system to train real robots. Of course, this won’t lead to football-playing robots in the short term, but since AI has proven effective at teaching humanoids the basis of how to play the game, there seem to be promising prospects for the future of robot football in the long term.

robot football players

The Superstars of the Future?

Recently, the French magazine France Football held a new gala for the most prestigious football prize in the world, the Ballon D’Or. This time, the prize went to French striker Karim Benzema and Catalan playmaker Alexia Putellas. But will the day come in which we will witness a robot football player receiving the Ballon D’Or? Though it seems rather unlikely today, the Putellas and Benzemas, and Haalands of the future could, in fact, be non-human football superstars.

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