April 19, 2014
Honda’s remarkable humanoid robot, ASIMO, has come a long way since I first saw it stiffly walk across a stage more than a decade ago.
The latest edition can run briskly, climb stairs with ease, dance like Travolta, kick a ball and jump up in down in what can only be described as a robot tantrum.
The 4 feet tall, 115-pound robot now features five dextrous fingers on each hand with force feedback sensors. As we saw in its first North America demonstration at the International Auto Show in New York on Wednesday, ASIMO can pick up a sealed container filled with orange juice, unscrew the top, pick up a paper up with its other hand, pour the juice and carefully set both cup and container back on the table.
It’s a simple task for humans. For ASIMO, it takes a great deal of sensors, including its two camera eyes and the sensors in its hands — which not only tell the robot that it’s holding something, but what kind of object it is and how much it weighs.
Earlier versions of ASIMO were somewhat larger and heavier, but this robot has a far greater degree of autonomy.
When I first saw ASIMO (which stands for “Advanced Step in
Innovative Mobility”) in 2003, the robot was remote controlled from behind the stage. Now the engineers program it with simple tasks — and ASIMO uses its sensors figures out the rest.
It can navigate a floor, labeled with tape so ASIMO can keep track of where it’s going. It can walk up a flight of steps without pausing (or falling). ASIMO still has to pause before descending the steps (it kind of stomps down them).
The robot’s battery still doesn’t last more than 40 minutes, and ASIMO has an unfortunate habit of walking in a semi-crouch. But it can now also jump in place and hop on one foot. Neither of these actions look super smooth, and seem unimpressive until you realize you’re judging a man-made object by human standards.
It’s a robot that can jump, not a person jumping while wearing a robot suitHonda, which started the ASIMO project in 1986, is spending a lot of time working on ASIMO’s communication skills. The robot can understand a handful of phrases and is now quite adept, thanks to its articulated hands, at Japanese sign language. Honda executive Jeffrey Smith told us that ASIMO is in the process of learning American Sign Language.
Best know for making cars, Honda, is working hard on removing the “creepiness” factor from ASIMO, a task that becomes increasingly important — and perhaps difficult — as ASIMO becomes more and more human-like and starts to approach the uncanny valley.
ASIMO, for example, can serve tea — but instead of focusing the robot entirely on the task of delivering and pouring hot liquid, Honda has programmed ASIMO to pause and look at the guests before bending down and placing the tea on the table. That simple act, which mimics what a human might do, “helps people have more friendliness and affinity toward ASIMO,” explained one Honda executive through an interpreter.
It’s also critical that ASIMO, which can now recognize faces and vocal commands, also read our non-verbal communication. Honda researchers hope to build this skill by placing ASIMO in more real-world situations, where they can collect additional data.
In our brief time with ASIMO, the robot showed off all its skills, including running across the stage at nearly 3 miles an hour; it even shook my hand. As I held its cool, magnesium alloy appendage and felt it firmly, yet gently, pump my hand, I imagined a not-too-distant future where a robot like ASIMO is carrying my luggage, fetching a ginger ale from the fridge, or keeping my children entertained with a game of soccer.
For now, though, ASIMO remains an impressive piece of robotic technology — one that, like a favorite aunt, visits far too infrequently and has no timetable for a lengthier or permanent stay.