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All About ASIMO

What with Honda’s recent unveiling of All-new ASIMO, Japan Business Press published an in-depth article by Takehiko Morozumi which brings to light some interesting details about its development.  What follows is not an exact translation, but is based on his article (we’ve also inserted some of our own observations).

Why doesn’t ASIMO have a face?

Honda approached ASIMO’s design in the same way they would an automobile; they produced a number of concept designs and presented them to average people in focus groups.

Abstract and realistic faces were in the mix, but both ends of the spectrum left an unpleasant impression on people. Some children even reported having nightmares after seeing the exaggerated features.  I had not really considered it before, but it’s entirely possible that children might be frightened by such a face, resulting in a “robot phobia” similar to coulrophobia (a fear of circus clowns).  On the other hand, a more realistic face (like that of a doll) can be just as frightening if you see it staring back at you in the middle of the night.

Honda’s designers eventually gave up on the idea of giving ASIMO a human-like face.  As you can see in the photo, they experimented with and without having the face obscured by a visor, and painting the face black to hide its features.  However, you can still make out two cameras where the eyes should be, so in a sense this became ASIMO’s “face”.  And by masking it, people don’t try to read too much into the robot’s character, such as its perceived “emotional state”.  Instead, you would likely tend to see your own reflection if you were to look at it face to face.

Perfect size to help around the house

Another topic of interest is the robot’s overall size.  Originally design and other considerations took a backseat to developing balanced bipedal walking, and as a result the first prototypes were quite large and monstrous in appearance.  As the prototypes were refined they became shorter and more compact.  Completed in 1997, the P3 was 160cm (5’3″) tall and weighed 130kg (287 lbs), but the first ASIMO was revealed to be just 120cm (4′) tall and weighed 43kg (95 lbs).  This was done in the pursuit of practicality, but also gave the robot much friendlier proportions.

Honda believes that ASIMO will (eventually) coexist with people on a daily basis.  ASIMO’s height has been tailored such that its eye-level is roughly equal to that of a sitting adult, equivalent to that of an 8-9 year old child.  As such, not only is it big enough to open doors, manipulate objects on a table, ascend and descend stairs, and flip light switches, but it can hardly be considered intimidating to the average person.  Besides, if it remained as tall as the P3, it would have difficulty moving around in the average Japanese home, and might even fall through the floor!  And in terms of safety, a robot that weighs more than 100kg would pose a much bigger risk if it were to fall.

ASIMO’s name

Most people assume that ASIMO is named after Isaac Asimov (famous for his “three laws of robotics”).  Not only is he one of the most respected science-fiction authors of all time, but many of his stories involve robots co-existing with people.  Unfortunately Isaac Asimov passed away in 1992, just four years before Honda’s robot project was finally unveiled to the public in the form of the P2.  It would have been very interesting to hear what he had to say about it.  However, it would be just as likely that Honda might name the robot after Karel Capek, the Czech playwright who coined the term “robot” in the 1920s.

The official company line is that the name has no relationship to Asimov; ASIMO is an acronym for “Advanced Step in Innovative MObility”.  That’s not the whole story though.  Honda’s team acknowledges that the name is evocative of the author, but the name’s first two phonemes あし (ashi) can mean foot, leg, gait, and pace in Japanese – all of which fit perfectly for a walking bipedal robot.  The English acronym came later.

Ongoing technical innovation

With All-new ASIMO, Honda has implemented a hydraulic system inside their robot for the first time.  Thin tubes run from the shoulder to the five fingers, allowing them to move independently.  There was some internal friction amongst the engineers, as this introduces the possibility of an internal fluid leak.  Previously, ASIMO was actuated exclusively by electronic motors, where a single motor in each palm opened and closed the fingers as a group.

Additionally, many people have noticed that All-new ASIMO makes much more noise than the previous versions.  The reason it is louder is simply because there are more motors and they are faster and more powerful.  It is because of these motors that ASIMO is able to run faster and hop.  The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed – when the issue was brought up, the developers conceded they’d like to reduce the noise level in the future.

Autonomy is still limited

Honda is paying more attention to ASIMO’s artificial intelligence, as noted by its ability to autonomously navigate in busy settings.  And its microphones can determine where sounds are coming from, allowing it to distinguish between three people speaking simultaneously (currently limited to Japanese only, but other languages including English will be added).

Another thing I’ve noticed is that All-new ASIMO unscrews the same exact thermos when pouring tea in multiple demonstrations.  You might say this is just for the sake of convenience, after all these demonstrations are strictly organized and rehearsed to prevent corporate embarrassment.  Now, I realize this kind of grasping and manipulation is not trivial, but it would be much more impressive if the team was able to show ASIMO performing similar tasks on a variety of example objects.  I’m somewhat surprised they didn’t take this into consideration.  In any case, it’s clear that All-new ASIMO’s artificial intelligence is still very limited.  The lofty standards set by science-fiction robots like Astro Boy & C3PO is still a long way off, but just how far off are we?  It’s rather sobering to consider the scant improvements made in the six years since the unveiling of the last version of ASIMO.

Video (All-new ASIMO at the Tokyo Motor Show):

The appearance of mechanical limitations

Mechanically speaking, ASIMO is one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever developed, but it appears to be reaching its limit.  Any kind of physical work is difficult for ASIMO.  Even if it had the intelligence of a person, it wouldn’t be able to do difficult work for the elderly of disabled, or take over for people in hazardous environments.  Its future practicality is dependent on its physical strength, and currently it is only able to carry a small tray of drinks for two to three people.  Unlike robots developed in the United States, its limbs aren’t very compliant, and it’s not as strong as the GM/NASA Robonaut 2 (which is able to lift 20 lbs with a single arm).

It seems as though ASIMO may have difficulty getting up from a fall – Honda’s developers have been ambiguous on this point.  Commenting on the recent earthquakes, they say they are working on better balancing and rising after a fall.  Full-sized robots (such as the HRP-2P, 2002) have already shown it is possible, so the lack of a public demonstration by ASIMO is disconcerting.  If the current approach to actuation proves insufficient, moving forward will require a major technological breakthrough.

Transferring ASIMO’s technology

Even if ASIMO isn’t practical right now, useful technology may flow from its development.  Honda’s new robot arm, which they say will be used at the Fukushima nuclear plant, is one example.  Jaded observers may dismiss the new robot arm as PR damage control – after all, ASIMO’s development was criticized for being useless in the face of the disaster.  However, the robot arm has some interesting properties, such as its powerful manipulator, which can be used to turn door handles and close valves in the plant.

Another example is Honda’s walk-assist technology, which helps to support your weight.  Professionals who have to bend and kneel on the job, from automotive workers to photographers could certainly benefit from the added support.  And similar systems could prove beneficial to physical therapy.  It seems as though exoskeletons have a bright future, and how they move and react to the body’s natural motions could stem in part from bipedal robots.

[source: Japan Business Press (JP)]

Further reading: “A Mate Walking Together” @ Honda Worldwide

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