Age of the machine?

  • You lookin"â„¢ at me? The latest version of ASIMO checks out its slightly larger predecessor.
  • Children perceive the robot as friendly and non-threatening
  • Age of the machine?
  • Professor Edgar Körner
  • Toyota"â„¢s unnamed trumpet-player
  • Shinichi Matsunaga
Date:30 November 2007 Tags:, , ,

The latest incarnation of Honda’s humanoid robot is more agile and smarter than you’d believe. does the world really need a machine that can shake your hand and kick a ball?

Several years ago, I wrote a newspaper article about my excessive politeness to machines. I admitted to thanking ATMs for giving me money, and to saying a cheery “Good morning!” to the automated boom in my parking garage. I even revealed my habit of patting the microwave after it heated my take-away tandoori.

The idea, I explained, was that when machines took over the world, as they were bound to do, the hive mind would remember these little courtesies and refrain from consigning me to oblivion along with the planet’s other human inhabitants – all 6,7 billion of them, including my wife, who would not be saved because, sadly, she did not believe.

But my encounter with ASIMO was different. Standing immobile and alone in a corner of Barcelona’s cavernous Biomedical Research Park, its “face” turned slightly towards me, the diminutive humanoid robot seemed to be inviting some form of communication. I still can’t believe I did it, but I recall whispering a lame greeting on the lines of “Hello, you”.

Because PM is not a sci-fi magazine, and machines are not yet sentient, I won’t pretend that ASIMO responded with a warm greeting and an observation on the weather. But here’s the thing: that robot seemed to be radiating friendliness. Having just wowed the assembled European press corps with a demonstration of stair-climbing, dancing, running and other neat tricks, it proceeded to win me over simply by standing there and looking cute.

Honda’s commitment to the development of humanoid robots stretches back two decades. Its first bipedal model, the E0, was unveiled in 1986. It walked very slowly in a straight line, taking nearly five seconds to complete a single step. Eight years and six prototypes later, Honda was ready to attach the walking mechanism to a body and create the first humanoid robot.

Model P1, introduced in 1993, was something of a monster – a more or less man-shaped robot with upper limbs that stood over 1,9 m tall and weighed a formidable 175 kg. It was able to turn computers on and off, grab doorknobs, and pick up objects. _ is was followed by P2, the world’s first self-regulating, two-legged humanoid walking robot, and 10 months later came P3, a completely independent, two-legged humanoid robot. Weighing in at 130 kg, it stood 1,6 m tall and carried a large “backpack”.

Finally, in December 2000, the world was introduced to ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative MObility). Smaller, lighter, smarter and altogether more people-friendly than its predecessors, the new robot immediately captured our imagination. Its first “evolutionary phase” in 2002 introduced significantly advanced communication technology, enabling it to recognise moving objects, postures and gestures, different environments, sounds and even faces. It could also be integrated with a user’s network system, and offered Internet connectivity.

Honda followed up in December 2004 with the “next-generation ASIMO”, featuring posture control technology that made it capable of running in a human-like way. More mechanical and electronic wizardry – aimed at achieving autonomous continuous movement – enabled it to take a flexible route to its destination, while enhanced visual and force sensor technologies permitted smoother interaction with humans.

In its latest incarnation, described as the “third evolutionary phase”, ASIMO is capable of some disconcertingly human-like behaviour: it can walk hand-in-hand with a human, offer a handshake, kick a ball, carry a tray, push a trolley, climb up and down stairs, run in a tight circle, recognise and greet people, and even – as it demonstrated in Barcelona – perform a nifty dance.

An astonishing amount of advanced technology is packed into ASIMO’S somewhat blocky 54 kg frame. The backpack, for example, contains a 51-volt lithium-ion battery weighing 6 kg, providing enough power for 40 minutes’ operation. Two camera “eyes” in its head allow the robot and its operator to view the surrounding environment. Together with some clever software, these accurately judge the distance from objects and enable the robot to negotiate obstacles without tripping.

The head, limbs and torso are moved by 34 separate servo motors, and as our video shows (visit the PM Web site at, the robot’s movements are remarkably fluid.

ASIMO recognises its environment using visual sensors, a floor surface sensor, an ultrasonic sensor, and an IC Tele-interaction Communication Card that is held by the person with whom the robot interacts.

With the co-ordinated use of the cameras in its head and the force (kinesthetic) sensors on its wrists, it can give and receive an object such as a tray.

Today, ASIMO is widely regarded as the world’s most advanced two-legged humanoid robot. It can identify voices, distinguish between sounds and spoken words, respond to certain instructions, and exchange simple sentences and greetings with humans. It understands about 50 calls and greetings as well as 30 different commands, reacting to them as required.

However, the road to intelligent behaviour remains a long one. As project insiders point out, the model for intelligence – the human brain – must be better understood before similar principles of processing can be applied to humanoid robots. They believe it will be at least 10-15 years before ASIMO’s intelligence matches its high level of mobility.

Why go to all this trouble? According to Honda, the benefits of their ASIMO project are many and varied. Although the robot’s market potential and applications have yet to be defined, they say, it provides a unique and compelling showcase for the company’s engineering and technological capabilities, which in turn has enabled Honda to achieve its objective of recruiting some of the best engineers and R&D specialists in the business. The various technologies developed along the way will also be applied in areas such as automotive safety; these include posture control and recognition technologies, and ways of making components smaller and lighter.

Honda’s research programme focuses on the development of intelligent behaviour, which it defines as “the ability to develop problem-solving strategies to achieve a specific objective by recognising and analysing, associating and combining, planning and deciding”.

But in the final analysis, says the company, ASIMO was created to help humans. It was not intended to operate in a weightless environment such as outer space, or under water. Not surprisingly, military applications are also a no-no.

William De Braekeleer, Honda’s PR chief in Europe, put it quite neatly: “The previous generation of ASIMO amazed people with the fluidity of its movements. The new ASIMO takes this mobility and interaction with people to the next level and moves Honda one step closer to its ultimate goal of developing a robot that can be a helper to people in need.”

Noting the robot’s easy interaction with children, De Braekeleer said it could also function as a “perception-buster”, helping to generate enthusiasm for science among schoolgoers.

Having established my own (entirely imaginary) rapport with the robot, I paused for a quick word with one of the Honda staffers before boarding the airport bus:

Me: “I really like ASIMO, but I need to know if it’s a boy robot or a girl robot.”

Honda person: “It’s a machine, actually. You should refer to the robot as ‘ASIMO’, or ‘it’.”

Me: “I’ve noticed that it doesn’t have… you know, so it can’t be a girl.”

Honda person: “I think your bus is waiting.”

Two years ago, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote a provocative article in whic
h he said the rate of technological progress was so rapid that we humans would ultimately merge with our technology, beginning with nanobots in our bodies and brains. Aside from the health benefits, these would provide “full-immersion virtual reality” and direct brain-to-brain communication over the Internet. Within just a few decades, predicted Kurzweil, the non-biological portion of our intelligence would be billions of times more capable than the biological portion.

Personally, I can’t wait.

Robot on the run
If you think a humanoid robot with the ability to run in a circle doesn’t sound particularly special, think again. To get some idea of the required technology, first consider the apparently simple act of walking. To accomplish this feat, humans call on several senses: otolith organs in the inner ear, which sense gravity and linear acceleration; angular speed sensed by the semicircular canals; and deep sensations from the muscles and skin, which sense the operating angle of the joints, angular speed, muscle power, and pressure on the soles of the feet.

Unlike robots, humans have structural elements such as soft skin and heels, and arch structures in the form of toe joints. All of these come into play when walking, combining with moveable parts to absorb bending impacts to the joint as the foot contacts the ground, softening the impact force.

To replicate the movement of the human foot during walking, the robot is equipped with a joint angle sensor, a 6-axis force sensor, a speed sensor and a gyroscope.

It gets more complicated. Analyses of walking humans have shown that as walking speed increases, so too does floor reaction. At a walking speed of 2-4 km/h, the impact is 1,2 to 1,4 times body weight; at 8 km/h, the load increases to 1,8 times body weight. To reduce this impact, ASIMO uses compliance controls and impact-absorbing material on the soles of its feet.

When walking humans start to turn a corner, they shift their centre of gravity towards the inside before commencing the turn. Honda’s new Intelligent Walking Technology does something similar, predicting the robot’s next movement in real time and shifting its centre of gravity accordingly.

To maintain the robot’s balance while increasing its walking speed, and prevent its feet from slipping or rotating in mid-air, the engineers developed new, highly responsive hardware. They also came up with posture logic control for the upper body’s bending and twisting motion.

Running was something else. The engineers had several challenges – preventing rotation and slipping as a result of the increased speed, achieving an accurate jump function, and finding an effective way of absorbing the shock of landing. In order for the robot to run, it had to repeat the movements of pushing off the ground, swinging its legs forward and landing within a very short time frame, and absorbing the shock of impact.

And they did it. Combining the independently developed bipedal walking control with proactive bending and twisting of the torso, the robot achieved stable running without slippage. Running in a circular pattern at high speed was achieved by tilting the robot’s centre of gravity inside the circle to maintain balance with the centrifugal force being developed. Running speed and tilted posture are altered according to the radius of the circle.

‘Anything bigger would be intimidating’
If anyone can be said to be ASIMO’S “teacher”, it’s Professor Edgar Krner, president and managing director of Honda Research Institute Europe. Based in Offenbach, Germany, he and his team work in partnership with 17 European universities and research centres in the field of intelligent systems and cognitive intelligence.

Interviewed before the launch ceremony, Krner said the robot’s almost instantaneous rapport with children was critical to its acceptance as a human helper and companion. “In determining the optimum shape and functionality of the robot, it was important to limit its size – largely because of the psychological effect it might have on humans. The new ASIMO weighs just 54 kg, and at 130 cm tall, its head is about level with that of a seated adult. Anything much bigger might have been intimidating… you can imagine how a human would react to the approach of a 1,9 m-tall machine!”

Part of the explanation for people’s perception of ASIMO as a friendly robot, said Krner, lay in the fact that it had no identifiable facial features. Unlike humanoid designs with simulated eyes, nose and mouth, Honda’s robot has a dark, gently rounded visor that somehow – and yes, we know this sounds silly – conveys friendliness.

Did he go along with Microsoft boss Bill Gates in forecasting a future in which robots would be found in every home? Krner nodded. “I cannot say how long it will take, but that’s the thinking behind Honda’s ASIMO programme. We want to develop robots that will truly help people, interacting with them, carrying out commands and doing useful jobs in ordinary human environments. The new ASIMO is a big step in the right direction, but it remains a work in progress.”

Perhaps “run” is a better word. Through proactive control of its posture while both feet are off the ground (for all of 80 milliseconds), this amazing robot can actually run at 6 km/h, or about twice the speed of the earlier prototype. It can even run in a circle by tilting its centre of gravity to maintain balance with the centrifugal force produced by its movement (see “Robot on the run”.)

At a press conference later, Krner said the research institute’s long-term target was the creation of a relatively simple version of the human brain – a “brain-like intelligence” – for their robot. In its present form, ASIMO lacked an intelligence function, and had limited autonomy and behavioural freedom.

He cited two critical factors that needed to be considered in going forward. One: To achieve true autonomy, you need motivation. Two: You cannot write a program that takes into account every eventuality in a real-world situation.

Honda’s robot is by no means the only humanoid design out there. Motor industry rivals Toyota, for example, have a robot development programme that has already resulted in some interesting breakthroughs. They caused a m

Humanoids are better than crabs
Shinichi Matsunaga, chief engineer at Honda R&D, is project leader for ASIMO’s system software development – in effect, the man behind the robot’s brain, and the person primarily responsible for its human interf

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