By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After, we ducked into a corner where we could watch the continuing ceremonies. I looked into my wife’s eyes and saw a face reflecting the same joy and love and hope that I was feeling inside. We cried and held each other, not caring what would come next in the legal battle. At that moment, we were married in every sense of the word.
Walking the Walk
Stairmaster: ASIMO, the first
(Photo courtesy of Honda)
It came, it sauntered, it climbed stairs! Its name was ASIMO, and like the gleaming robot in the B sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, it brought a message of peace and hope. Just 4 feet tall and cute as a button, ASIMO is the world’s first walking humanoid robot, the product of 18 years’ research by the Honda corporation in Japan. As it stepped out across the stage at the California Science Center, an audience of children (a few in their mid-20s) exploded with joy. No CGI effect, this was a real-life autonomous biped dancing and mugging for the crowd, and it was pretty hard not to feel a flutter of anthropomorphic empathy.
With a humanoid frame, and “skin” made of lightweight magnesium alloy coated in white plastic resin, ASIMO looks like a younger sibling of C-3PO, but its personality is pure R2D2 — cheeky and squeaky. Walking, like talking, has proved a far more difficult challenge than most robotics researchers imagined. (In a video that preceded ASIMO’s entrance, we watched as its predecessors, the P2 and P3, toddled and stumbled and fell to the ground like infants.) It’s been a long haul getting the requisite sensors and servomotors and gyroscopes sufficiently integrated.
Stephen Keeney, director of ASIMO’s U.S. operations, later told me that the world-renowned robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon University were bowled over by ASIMO’s ability to smoothly negotiate a midwalk turn. Previous walkers have had to stop, compute, and then change directions in a jerky and most unnatural fashion. ASIMO genuinely glides. Its hip action, especially, is astounding, and I half-expected to see it break into a moonwalk.
We didn’t get moonwalking, but we did get a hula, followed by ASIMO’s attempt to disco. To the pumping beat of “Staying Alive” and a backdrop projection of John Travolta, the robot shimmied — or tried to — proving that, at least on the dance floor, man still reigns supreme.
The highlight of the show, however, was yet to come. If walking is hard, walking upstairs is nearly impossible. But with a huge burst of fanfare, ASIMO strode to the top of a staircase, its own private Everest. Even more difficult, the show’s presenter informed us, is coming down, a descent that ASIMO negotiated with consummate grace. It was hard to believe this wasn’t Fox’s Littlest Groom.
Honda’s goal, Keeney said, is to turn ASIMO into a commercial product as a helpmate for the elderly, and to perform tasks in hazardous environments. At present, ASIMO’s activities are limited to the half-hour its battery pack allows. Honda, a world leader in fuel-cell technology, is looking into the prospect of using mini–fuel cells instead. Since the byproduct of this much-touted energy source is water, a fuel cell–operated ASIMO would have to pee, raising, says Keeney, the sensitive question of “whether it would use the men’s room or the ladies’ room.” Most people automatically assign the robot to the male gender, but unlike JPL scientists who quickly decided that their Mars Spiritrover was female, ASIMO’s handlers are determined to keep sexual politics out of the equation. “We try to stress that it’s not a he or a she,” Keeney says. “It’s an it.”
ASIMO has been designed for terre
trial use, but might it not also be the perfect solution to the Mars problem? George Bush says he wants to fund a manned mission to Mars, yet many scientists have pointed out that robots could accomplish the same thing at a much lower cost. ASIMO is still more humanoid than humanlike, but with each iteration its skill set will continue to improve. A real person on a trip to Mars would have to eat and drink and shower and not go mad cooped up in a tin can for more than a year. ASIMO would simply have to be turned on when it got there. It could even take a friend. Ideally we’d get W. and Dick
to leave for the red planet, but if they won’t volunteer let’s instead send two ASIMOs, plus one AIBO, Sony’s robot puppy. It couldn’t get any cuter, and this might be a project we could actually afford.
Hey Now, You’re an All-Star
On my way into the Century City Plaza Hotel with a bunch of Brazilian journalists in town for the NBA Jam Session and All-Star game, we walk right into Kobe Bryant holding his baby girl in his arms, his wife Vanessa and a couple of security guys.