WAKO, Japan – The walking, talking child-size robot from Honda Motor Co. (search) now manages an easy, although comical, jog — the latest in the Japanese automaker's quest to imitate human movement.
The 51-inch-tall, bubble-headed robot added a couple of infrared cameras and a sensor to better absorb shock and keep its balance for a steady, mechanical-looking run at a slow pace of 1.9 mph in a demonstration Wednesday at a Honda facility.
The robot called Asimo (search), a take on the Japanese word for "leg" or "ashi," debuted four years ago and has undergone several upgrades.
The latest has a rotating hip that counters the impact of landing on the ground when running — an activity that's different from walking in that both feet must be off the ground in a hop at a given point in time.
The new Asimo is a bit smarter, loaded with a CPU equivalent of about five personal computers, and can dodge people and other obstacles in its path when moving to an instructed destination, forming its own route according to a map program inside its brain.
Although Asimo has already climbed up and down stairs and carried on simple conversations with voice-recognition capability, it still can't step over things in its way or run up and down slopes, Honda officials said.
The new machine moves about twice as fast as the previous model, which walked at a speed of 1 mph.
The upgrade also has a sensor in its wrist so it can be led by the hand with a pull and walks backward if it's slightly nudged with a push.
Honda engineer Masato Hirose said the key feature is its ability to kick while keeping its balance, a trick it accomplishes by tilting and swerving its hips to prevent slipping and sliding — a critical skill in running.
Hirose said Asimo's run was more human than what was achieved by a smaller robot from Japanese electronics and entertainment giant Sony Corp (NYSE).
Reporters watched Sony's robot Qrio run for the first time last year. But its jog resembled a series of jiggling jumps.
Japan is one of the leading nations in the world in robotics. Besides Sony, other companies and universities have created companions or security robots for the home. Robots that look less human are used extensively in manufacturing plants.
The new Asimo also gained a moving thumb and is smart enough to reach toward an extended hand, delivering a more realistic handshake — an asset for its job as ambassador for Honda. In the past, a person had to find Asimo's mechanical hand.
Asimo has rung the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, accompanied the prime minister on an overseas trip and shaken hands with dignitaries. It's not for sale.
What Honda really wants is a robot that can help with tasks.
Honda is hoping Asimo will be running errands, delivering relatively light things such as in-office mail, working side by side with Honda employees perhaps by 2010, said Takanobu Ito, a managing director.
But Asimo is not about to replace auto workers at Honda plants any time soon.