Monday, March 10, 2008

Humanoid Robots: A definitive guide.

The idea behind the humanoid robot project is to create those robots that are not necessarily universal, but can at least handle multiple tasks. One application commonly talked about is care for the elderly. One can only imagine how many different & changing circumstances that might entail.

We humans love a robot fashioned in our own image. Science fiction has pushed this idea of what a robot should be, almost to the exclusion of all others. So it's no wonder that anytime a robot builder—amateur or pro—creates a robot with two legs, two arms, & a head, the world beats a path to the laboratory door. The world has been so taken by Honda's flashy humanoid robots that few people (including otherwise skeptical journalists) have bothered to ask what sort of brains control these bots. The answer is: human. Honda spent over a hundred year's worth of development hours (& untold yen) getting the walking technology perfected, & figuring out how to cram all of the electronics, servos, & batteries into a humanoid shell. The P-series & the ASIMO humonoid robots are really proof-of-concept models for robotic mobility. The progenitor of the line (the E1) was actually only a set of legs, with a weight above the hips to approximate a full body weight. It was only after Honda engineers got the walking gait & balancing technologies working that they built the rest of the robot.

There's nothing wrong with this approach; in fact, as we'll see in "Behavior-Based Robotics (BBR)" later in this chapter, a bottom-up approach (in this case, literally) makes a lot of sense. But Honda appears to want people to think that its robots are more advanced & a lot smarter than they actually are. In other words, it isn't going out of its way to point out that a human operator is calling the shots. Honda, & other Japanese robot makers (like Sony), & the world's humanoid robot research labs, are thrilled that these bipedal bots have so thoroughly captured the public's imagination. Now, while we're all busy watching ASIMO deftly walk out of the family garage to fetch the morning paper on Honda's TV ads (note that we never actually see little 'MO bend over & pick up the paper), the company's hard at work trying to fill this fantasy container they've built with some honest smarts.

The Honda P-series, ASIMO, the Sony SDR-4X, & many other not-as-photogenic robots are all part of a countrywide humanoid robot initiative in Japan. Robot researchers there are hard at work trying to create autonomous bipedal robots that can cope with changing environments & perform complex tasks. Although the Japanese plan on doing this within a decade (the project clock started ticking in 1998, by the way), you realize just how far we still have to go when you hear Sony making a big deal over the fact that the SDR-4X can walk from a wooden floor onto semi-thick carpet without falling over.



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