Another Life

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I MET a robot last week. Not any robot, but one that can think – almost – independently. The experience was something out of a sci-fi film.

ASIMO is a humanoid robot created by Japanese firm Honda. The project has been going on for a number of years but the little chap I met in Tokyo last week, and got to hang out with all morning, is a brand new robot that claims to be one of the most advanced around.

What sets ASIMO apart from the few robots I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my career, is that it looks and acts almost human. Although the Honda engineers were keen to highlight his unisex nature, ASIMO feels male. He is like a naughty boy especially when he kicks a football or bounces cheekily backwards. It really is fun to hang out with ASIMO.

The new ASIMO has moved on from being an automatic machine to an autonomous one with decision-making capabilities. For instance he is capable of responding to the movement of people and his surroundings. ASIMO will stop what he’s doing and change his behaviour to accommodate people around him. He can determine where someone will walk using his pre-set space sensors to avoid collision.

Coordination between visual and auditory sensors enables the little chap to recognise multiple voices speaking simultaneously and tell who’s saying what – something that us mere humans can find difficult. In the demonstration, three ladies ordered coffee, tea and hot chocolate at the same time and ASIMO was able to verbalise who ordered what!

Physically he is pretty advanced. A combination of strengthened legs, an expanded range of movements and a newly developed control technology that enables him to change landing positions in the middle of a motion and permits him to walk and run forwards and backwards. He can even determine surface change and adjust his steps accordingly. ASIMO can also kick a football as I witnessed on my day with him.

Honda’s little robot moves his fingers one by one forming a fist. Combined with object recognition technology based on visual and tactile sensors, he can pick up small objects, a bottle for instance, open the cap then hold a soft paper cup and pour liquid into it.

And he can even communicate with humans through sign language. Yes it is all still robotic, but nevertheless this is seriously advanced stuff.

Honda is a modest company – it seldom shouts out its achievements, which is a bit of a shame as visiting ASIMO at the research and development centre in Tokyo I was taken back by how innovative this company is.

ASIMO may look like a simple and fun project but what it does for the company that’s invested so heavily in it is to act as a research bed for mobility solutions be it cars and motorbikes, or feed into finding aid solutions for the elderly and the disabled.

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