The advent of the androids


Cathal O'Connell meets four robots built to mimic human movement.


American Honda Motor Co. Inc

Asimo

Manufacturer: Honda
Location: Tokyo
Height: 130 cm
Weight: 48 kg

Looking like a kid in a space-suit, Honda’s ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative MObility) is probably the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. In 1996 ASIMO was the first robot to walk independently and climb stairs. Now it can run at 9 km/h, kick a ball and hop on one leg. Designed to help Japan’s elderly citizens, ASIMO can also carry a tray, open a twist-cap bottle, and push a cart. Its four fingers and thumb can communicate in sign language. ASIMO also understands gestures, such as pointing, and can pick out its master’s voice in a crowd. ASIMO is courteous too – most recently bowing when meeting President Obama. But with a battery life of only one hour and a $1 million price tag, ASIMO has a long way to go before solving Japan’s aged care crisis.

Aldebaran

Nao

Manufacturer: Aldebaran
Location: Paris
Height: 58 cm
Weight: 5 kg

NAO looks like a version of Buzz Lightyear but it’s no toy. The little robot walks around using bat-like sonar vision to detect obstacles. If NAO tumbles its arms shoot out for protection and it scrambles back to an upright position. Four head microphones allow NAO to localise sound and detect the direction of your call. NAO can recognise people and call them by their first name. But NAO is not entirely autonomous. If you want the robot to grab you a can of soft drink you’ll have to teach it. In the same way a golf instructor swings someone’s arm to demonstrate the feel of a stroke, you must pull NAO’s arm and hands to open the fridge, and clasp its two hands around the can. NAO is one of the few humanoid robots already on sale, costing $A8,000. More than 5,000 have been sold as educational props in universities and IT-focused schools to help teach computer programming in a fun way.

DLR

Rollin' Justin

Manufacturer: German Aerospace Centre
Location: Munich
Height: 160 cm (to shoulder)
Weight: 195 kg

Built by DLR (the German NASA), Justin was initially designed as a space-bot to repair satellites. Its head and arms were attached to the outside of a manoeuvrable craft and its movements were controlled from Earth by a person wearing motion sensors who modelled Justin’s movements while seeing through Justin’s eyes. Back on terra firma, Rollin’ Justin has wheels and is a prototype domestic robot. Set it a task, such as cleaning a window, and the robot will follow through. But instructions must be given in computer code as Justin does not understand human speech. With its 3D view of the world and motion detectors, Justin is fast enough to play catch. And though it can lift 15 kg with those bulging biceps, the sensors on its fingers mean it can also pluck a rose without crushing it. But for now the robot remains an expensive research project – which is defeated by stairs.

Nexi

Manufacturer: MIT Media Lab–Personal Robots Group
Location: Boston
Height: 100 cm
Weight: 15 kg

With glittering blue eyes, Nexi is the world’s most expressive humanoid robot, able to convey more than 10 emotions including sadness, anger and confusion by moving eyelids, eyebrows and mouth. Nexi is an attentive listener too. Those eyes follow you around the room and Nexi will nod along as you speak. Nexi’s answers, using pre-programmed responses and conveyed with appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures, are most convincing. Nexi is used to study human/robot relationships. For instance, Nexi has been used to study how fidgety gestures, such as touching one’s face or folding arms, mark out a person (or in this case a robot) as untrustworthy.

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Cathal O'Connell is a science writer based in Melbourne.
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