Robot Man

You gotta admit, the thing is definitely impressive. It can walk, talk and shake your hand—sometimes all at the same time. It can sidestep, raise its arms and wave at you. It can climb and descend stairs, not haltingly and awkwardly, but smoothly, like you or I would. A year ago, it rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

It looks like an eight-year-old wearing a spacesuit, which is rather eerie considering "it" is a robot. Called ASIMO—Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, but which is also a wonderful sci-fi mnemonic of Issac Asimov, I'd say—the robot is one of the most advanced pieces of engineering in the world.

Built by Honda, maker of finer motorcycles, cars, engines and jet skis, ASIMO is the product of 16 years of prototyping and research from its hitherto quiet robot division. Engineers call it a "technology demonstrator"—not nearly ready to start taking out the garbage, but still remarkable to watch.

The robot, of course, cannot think. "ASIMO's intelligence lies in the technologies with which it is equipped, not in the ability to think or reason as a human," blandly states Honda promotional materials.

In other words, ASIMO can only do what its operators tell it to do. During a videotaped Honda demonstration show, the robot seems to interact with a girl onstage, greeting her, talking to her in its Stephen Hawking voice, following her around, even dancing a pretty weak hula with her. In fact, ASIMO is just carrying out a series of preprogrammed orders. There is no actual interaction. It's not the robot following the girl, but rather the girl following ASIMO.

It takes two operators to prep and control ASIMO during a demo, and Steve Leong is one of them. A 41-year-old Laguna Niguel resident, Leong is currently in Lincoln, Alabama, for the tour.

"Prior to the show, there's lots of work we have to do," he said. "We have to calculate and measure where the robot will go. We have to do lots of preprogramming. Everything you see [the robot do] is just an action that we've already told it to do. We tell it to walk but don't send it on any long tangent."

Leong works in video production for Irvine-based Martin Brinkerhoff Associates, the company handling Honda's ASIMO tour, which is how he got the job as a robot operator. "There are five of us operators," he said. "Honda flew in a couple of Japanese trainers, but because of a short crunch time, we had to condense five weeks of training into two."

The robot isn't difficult to work, said Leong, but it is complex. Its structure includes 26 different motors, each providing a different "degree of freedom" or motion—a flexing hand, bending knee and so forth. Yet it is just four feet tall and weighs 115 pounds. Battery powered, the robot can run 30 minutes on one charge. It walks at about 1 mph.

"It can do hand and arm movements, but the focus was on walking," said Leong. "It has six internal gyros that are always stabilizing it—telling it how to balance in relation to the ground."

Honda is very sensitive to putting ASIMO in any kind of bad or trivial light; don't expect to see it capering with Letterman as part of some Stupid Robot Tricks gag any time soon. In fact, Honda has remarkably serious plans for ASIMO as a kind of nurse to the elderly, doing small chores around the house like turning off the lights, getting pills, things like that. Already a greeter and tour guide at various plants and museums in Japan, it's easy to envision future ASIMOs putting a lot of personal assistants and health-care aides out of work.

Honda emphatically says ASIMO will never be a soldier. Perhaps, but robots that can walk and move easily through human society are now a reality. It's fairly easy to imagine robot infantry jogging across a gas-clouded battlefield in the near future. Honda may not build those robots, but someone will. And eventually, they won't even need guys like Steve Leong to control them.

 
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