The stairs of potential doom await the arrival of Asimo, Honda's humanoid robot. The latest version should be able to climb them, but it took a nasty tumble during a demonstration in Japan. Will it fare better in its first outing in Las Vegas, or will the pressure of performing in front of a large crowd prove too much for it?
After some introductory words from various Honda spokespeople, Asimo steps onto the stage.
Honda began developing its humanoid robot in 1986. Its first self-regulating, two-legged robot was completed ten years later, in 1996, and christened P2. A year later Honda produced P3, the first completely independent, humanoid walking robot. The first Asimo (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) was completed in 2000, and the current model (new Asimo) took its first public steps in 2005.
Despite the humanoid appearance, there's something vaguely ducklike about Asimo's walk. It moves smoothly and changes direction without pausing, but its hips don't rise and fall with each step -- the walking action is almost entirely in its legs.
Although it doesn't have the drama of climbing stairs, watching Asimo balance on one foot is oddly compelling -- it's one of its most human actions.
If you pull on Asimo's hand, it moves towards you. If you push, it steps backward. It is constantly making adjustments to stay upright -- because if it falls, it can't get up again on its own.
Honda's goal is to make a robot that can assist people with limited mobility, around the home or in a hospital. Asimo's height of 1.3m (4 feet 3 inches) means it can look directly at a person who is in a wheelchair or sitting in bed. The current model weighs 54Kg and can run for about an hour on a full charge of its lithium ion battery, which lives in the backpack.
Asimo dances like your dad, frankly. Honda says the cute appearance is deliberate -- it's designed to be your non-threatening robot friend.
Asimo can also play football...
...run, robot, run! The new Asimo runs at up to 6km per hour and has both feet off the ground for 0.08 seconds each time it takes a step. It can also run in circles, by leaning inwards to keep its balance.
Asimo runs not for the sheer joy of speeding fleet-footed across the countryside with the wind in its hair, but because making it go jogging is helping Honda refine its movements so it can react more quickly to changes in its surroundings. You might not want a robot sprinting through your house, but you would want it to be able to react quickly if something -- or someone -- got in its way.
Asimo stands nonchalantly next to Honda's Blair Hickey as it approaches the climax of the presentation... the ascent of the stairs.
The lights dim and all attention is on the spot-lit robot as it climbs smoothly up the flight of steps...
...and pauses on the top to receive the adulation of the crowd...
...before tackling the even greater challenge of the descent. Currently Asimo needs to know the rise and run of the staircase to navigate it successfully, but Honda's engineers are working on technologies that will let it assess the flight with its on-board sensors.
Well done, Asimo! Honda's robot might not have the gimme gimme appeal of the Apple iPhone or the sparkle of a diamond-encrusted television, but it's certainly an icon of the sci-fi future. It's easy to imagine people taking it into their hearts and welcoming it into their homes. Honda thinks we're still ten years away from Asimo adoptions, but Crave is already thinking about cleaning out the spare room. -ML