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Robot of future harkens back to the past

Friday, May 02, 2003

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

Finally, a robot that looks like a robot.

Named Asimo, it is so advanced it somehow looks old-fashioned, like the robots imagined decades ago by science fiction writers, whose images have been seared into the popular consciousness.

Asimo, a robot created by Honda, dances with schoolchildren yesterday during a demonstration at Carnegie Mellon University. With the robot are, from left, hostess Shari Rose, sixth-grader Duran Ward from Schiller Classical Academy, ninth-grader Jason Plank from Franklin Regional High School and sixth-grader Brooke Wano from Derry Middle School. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

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Thanks to Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, Pittsburgh has seen more than its share of robots -- any number of wheeled robots, robotic cars, eight-legged robots, helicopter robots and snake-like robots. But until Honda brought its Asimo to town this week, robots shaped like humans were largely confined to toy stores.

Pittsburgh is the seventh of 14 U.S. cities that Asimo is visiting this year and next. About 300 schoolchildren yesterday morning became the first here to see the 4-foot-tall machine put through its paces in CMU's University Center.

The show features 25 minutes of the plastic-clad robot walking forward, backward, sideways and in a figure-8, climbing and descending stairs, dancing with students, waving to the crowd and leading the applause.

Getting a machine to walk like a human is a technological breakthrough, said Jeffrey Smith, leader of the North American Asimo Project, and the only way to appreciate it is to see it live.

People are so accustomed to computer graphics and special effects that they often question whether Asimo is real when they see it in Honda television commercials. That's why Honda has taken Asimo on the road.

"We're saying no to Leno and Letterman and all that," Smith said. "We want to make absolutely clear that this is not fake."

That's one reason he insists on using a raised stage that the audience can see under, proving nobody is manipulating Asimo from below.

Honda envisions Asimo someday evolving into a robot that can assist the elderly and disabled, fetching things for them, opening doors, turning on lights and doing other chores. Its 4-foot height places Asimo's head at eye level with a sitting adult and also allows it to reach most switches and handles in the average home.

Larger, heavier versions conceivably could take over dangerous tasks, such as firefighting or cleaning up hazardous wastes.

Honda is not alone in developing robots in a human shape. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry several years ago made general-purpose humanoid robots a national research focus. Several Japanese universities have humanoid robot programs and Sony last year unveiled a prototype of a small, two-legged robot.

Sony has no immediate plans to market its 2-foot-tall bipedal robot, the SDR-4X, said John Piazza, manager of marketing communications at Sony's Entertainment Robot America subsidiary. Like the four-legged, dog-like robot, Aibo, that Sony makes and sells, the two-legged robot might initially be an entertainment robot, designed to be fun more than anything else, he said.

But Sony also anticipates the robots will evolve into companions and personal agents. Aibo already is able to connect to a personal computer, so it can read e-mail aloud or transmit images from its head-mounted camera. It might soon be possible for such a robot to wake its master up in the morning and provide updates on weather and traffic conditions.

"This could be possible fairly shortly," Piazza said. Facial recognition systems allow the robots to recognize family members so they can greet them by name and ignore orders from strangers.

"It could be like Rosie the Maid on the Jetsons," he said. "'Hi, George, how was your day?' "

Nobody at Honda is hazarding a guess about when Asimo might be ready for market either. "Honestly, we don't know how long it will be -- five or 10 years or whatever," said Stephen Keeney, project leader of the Asimo tour.

As now constituted, Asimo would cost $1 million per copy, "but you can rent him for $20,000 a day," Smith said. The price will have to come way down and Asimo's abilities will have to increase before mass production occurs.

Though Asimo's walking ability is real, Smith is careful to note that some of what audiences see in the show is strictly show business. Asimo is not an autonomous robot, but is operated remotely -- one operator for the lower body and legs, one operator for the upper body and head. Its five-fingered hands are fully articulated, but not equipped with pressure-sensors that would help it grasp objects.

"We built this robot from the bottom up," Smith said, emphasizing that its chief accomplishment is its ability to walk. Though that may sound simple, it took 17 years to enable a machine to balance itself on two legs, walk and change directions.

Asimo weighs just over 100 pounds, with much of the weight concentrated in a battery placed in its belly. Even when standing still, Asimo needs power to maintain its balance, just like humans. If Asimo falls, it can't get up -- a problem Honda is addressing.

The robot is appearing in conjunction with the RoboCup American Open, a robotic soccer competition hosted by Carnegie Mellon. School groups are scheduled to see Asimo demonstrations today. It will be demonstrated for the public at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday in the Wiegand Gymnasium in CMU's University Center.

For more information about Asimo or RoboCup, visit the Web site at www.americanopen03.org and www.asimo.honda.com.

Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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