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Can a robot team beat humans in the 2050 World Cup of soccer?

Manuela Veloso, head of J.P. Morgan AI Research and co-founder of RoboCup, will deliver the graduation address at Northeastern’s doctoral hooding and graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy of Manuela Veloso.

Two teams of small, round robots swarm across a miniature soccer field, knocking a bright orange golf ball between them with surprising force. Their designers can only watch, hoping that their programming can out-think, and out-score, the other team.

These robots are the legacy of Manuela Veloso, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who will deliver the graduation address at Northeastern’s doctoral hooding and graduation ceremony on Wednesday.

In 1997, Veloso co-founded RoboCup, an international initiative launched with the formidable dream of fielding a team of autonomous robots capable of beating the human World Cup champions by 2050. The robot soccer teams designed by Veloso and her students have been RoboCup Small Size League world champions several times.

For Veloso, whose research focuses on artificial intelligence, the challenge has never been merely about playing soccer. In addition to finding, recognizing, and moving the ball, her robots must autonomously coordinate their movements as a team and adapt to the strategy of their opponents. The solutions found playing robot soccer can help improve autonomous systems in a variety of situations.

Veloso envisions a future where artificial intelligence and humans depend on each other. Artificial intelligence will assist humans in complex tasks, but also know its limitations, and be able to ask humans for help when something is beyond its ability or it requires more information.

Those visiting her office at Carnegie Mellon in previous years would be escorted by one of her CoBots, autonomous mobile service robots capable of performing tasks around the office. When the CoBots cannot complete a task, because, say, they don’t know where the coffee maker is or they don’t have arms to push the elevator buttons, they ask nearby humans for assistance. The CoBots at Carnegie Mellon have autonomously navigated more than 1,000 kilometers of university hallways.

Veloso is currently on leave from Carnegie Mellon, where she is the past head of the machine learning department, to work as the head of J.P. Morgan AI Research. In this role, she is pursuing fundamental research into how artificial intelligence can help the financial sector. But as with robot soccer, she expects her research, which includes handling and protecting large amounts of data and designing artificial intelligence that can explain its decisions to human partners, to be applicable to wider fields.

Veloso is also the past president and a current fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She’ll address the graduating class of doctoral students at the Cabot Center on Wednesday.

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