Politics scuttles Israeli robot team as Iran boycotts

Politics scuttles Israeli robot team as Iran boycotts

Teens who hoped to show off their tech savvy decide to forfeit the technical victory they were entitled to

Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)
Boxing robots in action at the Israel RoboCup championship (Courtesy)

Israel’s team in the international Junior RoboCup competition has dropped out instead of taking a technical victory in the contest’s quarter-finals, after the Iranian team refused to play them at a crucial stage of the event, another chapter in the sad saga of politics ruining activities, even for kids.

Team leader Dr. Eli Kolberg said the eight 11th and 12th graders were confident they could beat Iran as well as countries in the later stages of the contest. But “they were so insulted by the Iranian rejection that they decided to drop out of the event as well, rather than take the technical victory they had coming to them because Iran refused to play.”

Robocup is the world’s premier contest for next-generation robot building. The contest was first held in 1997, with the main goal of developing by 2050 a Robot Soccer team capable of winning against the human team champion of the FIFA World Cup. Since then, the contest has evolved, with entrants accepted in categories like rescue (robots that can render assistance in the event of fire or accidents), home (robots to help the elderly or handicapped cope with daily challenges), and others.

In 2013, over 40,000 people visited Junior RoboCup over the five days it was held in the Netherlands, where participants from 45 countries presented their robots. This year the Israeli team is sponsored by Bar-Ilan University, and is led by Kolberg of Bar-Ilan’s Faculty of Engineering.

The Israeli team includes eight teens from Yigal Alon High School in Rishon Lezion who built a robot to participate in the sports category. Yoav Ayalon, one of the Team Israel members, said the team developed a pair of robots that box each other, acting and reacting just like live boxers. “The robots are not autonomous, and are programmed by humans,” Ayalon told The Times of Israel. “But the action is very real, and once programmed, they run their program automatically without our interceding. Our robots can duck and bob like humans would, so if one of the robots tries to hit the other in the head, the target robot’s controller can move its head out of the way in a very fluid manner.”

The robots were well received in the contest and were considered top contenders for the championship title. But it was not to be, said Kolberg. “The last game before the quarter-finals was supposed to be played between Israel and Iran,” said Kolberg. “A short time before the match, the Iranians informed administrators that they preferred to drop out of the competition rather than compete against Israel,” he said.

“The team was told that they could be awarded the competition and get into the quarter-finals, but the kids were so insulted that they decided to back out of the contest as well,” said Kolberg, though the Israeli kids had been looking forward to the challenge. “The Iranians are almost as good as we are,” he noted. “We had a good chance to beat them and move ahead into the quarter-finals, but unfortunately, politics put an end to that.”

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