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Walking Robot Could Aid Humans Who Have Lost Their Mobility - 2003-09-21

Scientists have been working for years to design robots that can serve as household helpers for the elderly or disabled. But just getting robots to walk has been a big challenge. Honda Motor Company has built one that not only walks - it dances!

Presenter Shari Rose leads three grade school kids through some dance moves at a Convention Center ballroom. Dancing alongside them on stage is what looks like a little person in a white space suit. The 120 centimeter-tall robot, called ASIMO, is a pretty good dancer. It moves slowly but gracefully to the music, swaying its hips and moving its arms.

Honda Motor Company is showing off ASIMO's talents in a nationwide tour aimed at school kids. The Japan-based manufacturer - known best for its cars - has spent 17 years developing ASIMO. Of course, Honda did not design ASIMO for dancing. Project leader Jeffrey Smith said he hopes the technology will eventually evolve into a robot that can help people who have lost their mobility.

"If you can imagine a person in a wheelchair or confined to a bed could someday say, 'ASIMO, get my medicine,' 'ASIMO, get me a glass of water,' 'ASIMO answer the door,' 'ASIMO, walk the dog.' We think that's coming in the future," Mr. Smith said.

In the meantime, Mr. Smith said the fact that ASIMO walks is a big achievement.

Pradeep Khosla a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, said "I think it's an extremely big deal." He said ASIMO's walking ability is important because the few mobile robots you'll find today only get around on wheels. "We know that wheels can only traverse certain types of terrain. Whereas we human beings walk, and traverse more different types of terrain. So walking, I think, is an extremely important mobility mechanism. And endowing robots with that allows us to make robots useful in many more ways now," he explains.

But just walking on a flat stage is not enough. A robot has to be able to walk in a world of bumps, potholes, curbs and stairs. With a lot of fanfare, Honda's presenter Ms. Rose shows off ASIMO's stair-climbing ability.

"ASIMO climbs the stairs by detecting and maintaining the right position. For each step, ASIMO must adapt and constantly counterbalance, using all its computing and sensing powers to remain upright, adjusting along the way! Way to go, ASIMO!" she said.

ASIMO slowly marches up and down the stairs, and the crowd of grade school kids goes wild. Professor Roger Brockett of Harvard University's robotics laboratory said stairs are one part of the human environment which robots will have to navigate in order to be useful.

"Robots that can walk up and down stairs, walk over thresholds, navigate around coffee tables and things like that will have a certain appeal that wheeled robots will not have," Mr. Brockett said.

Mr. Brockett said people will also find a walking robot more appealing than a wheeled robot because it looks more like us.

But before humans will accept robots into their everyday lives, robots may have to get over a little image problem. Hollywood has not always been kind to robots. For example, take the 1984 movie, The Terminator, in which a robot relentlessly hunts down a human.

This is not the sort of image Honda wants ASIMO to portray.

Project leader Mr. Smith said Honda went out of its way to make ASIMO appear likable. He told the convention center crowd that the little-kid-in-a-space-suit look is all part of the plan.

"Honda purposely designed ASIMO to be undeniably and intentionally cute. We believe that a robot's design may be a key to human acceptance in society," he said.

But Harvard's Mr. Brockett doesn't think humans will have to think about accepting humanoid robots into society anytime soon. He said while building a walking robot is a big achievement, the technology to make robots into household helpers just isn't ready yet.

"You go tell it to make the pork chops or something, I don't think that's going to happen very ... well, not in my lifetime," he said.

For now, we'll have to be content with a robot that dances.