How Honda’s ASIMO Became the Running, Drink-Serving, Autonomous Robot It Is Today

In 1986, Honda developed a robot that could barely move its legs. Last week, it revealed one of the most advanced robots in the world.

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People tend to think of ASIMO as a Honda mascot; a cute, harmless looking mechanical man that appears in car commercials and even has its own show at the Disneyland Resort. ASIMO, however, is no robotic Mickey Mouse. What started in 1986 as a pair of legs that took five seconds between steps can now do everything from perform sign language to autonomously detect and avoid obstacles while walking down a busy office hallway.

Videos released last week of the newest ASIMO model look like they’re cut from a science fiction film. The clip below shows it carefully opening a thermos and pouring its contents into a soft paper cup, making careful not to crush it thanks to the tactile sensors in its multi-fingered hands. While we’re nowhere near a robotic Tom Cruise flipping bottles a la Cocktail, the increased dexterity is quite impressive.

The new model is also capable of walking on uneven surfaces, hopping on one leg, running 5.6 mph, and recognizing the voices of multiple people even when they’re speaking simultaneously. It’s also a slimmer 106 lbs (down 13 lbs from the last model) and more flexible. So, how did ASIMO reach this point?

(PHOTOS: We Love Robots)

It all started at the Honda R&D Fundamental Technology Research Center in Japan. Researchers were looking to create a robot to help the disabled, thus ASIMO’s short height (4′ 3″), which will hopefully allow it interact naturally with people in wheelchairs or confined to beds.

Jeffrey Smith, project leader for ASIMO in North America from 2000-2007, shed some light on some of the early difficulties in developing the robot, especially with one basic function: walking.

“The very process of standing upright as a human requires constant balance and adjustment,” Smith wrote to Techland in an email. “So it was extremely challenging for Honda’s engineers to develop a machine to mimic the complexities of human walking and balance, and perform something so purely instinctual to humans.”

The Honda R&D team spent several years just studying the walking habits of humans and animals before developing the P2 in 1996, its first bipedal humanoid robot, and the P3 in 1997, which could walk around without any attached wires.

The next big jump was the development of ASIMO in 2000, which could walk freely and climb stairs. ASIMO became more and more advanced—in 2004, it gained the ability to run. In 2005, it could grab and carry things. In 2007, it gained a few autonomous functions, such as the ability to charge itself.

Last week, the latest version was revealed. So, what’s next for ASIMO?

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“One of the biggest challenges in this regard is to develop a robot that can think conditionally, to interact and adapt in a rapidly changing and unstable environment,” wrote Smith. “We’ve made strides in this regard, but have a long way to go.”

As to what specifically you’ll see in the next version of ASIMO, that’s “proprietary information.” While we personally take that to mean “laser beams,” it more likely means advancements in autonomous behavior.

The steps ASIMO has taken in terms of autonomous behavior are pretty impressive. Autonomy is the key to adaptability, which is the key to making robots practical for everyday life. Consider iRobot’s Roomba. It’s simple enough; a tiny vacuum cleaner that automatically changes directions when it bumps into something, but the fact that you can just leave it alone to do its thing makes it incredibly useful.

Obviously, ASIMO has to have a higher standard. You couldn’t have the equivalent of a tiny man walking around your house, randomly grabbing things and opening doors. But as Honda’s newly formed Honda Robotics division ramps up ASIMO’s ability to balance itself, avoid obstacles, gather and process multiple sources of information, and base actions on predictions of behavior, you’ll start to see a robot that can function in a home or hospital without trashing the place like a drunken sailor.

As for when you’ll be able to buy a version of ASIMO for yourself, Honda isn’t telling. For now you’re going to have to settle for technology developed for ASIMO that ended up in Honda’s cars, such as voice recognition and collision prediction. Hey, at least you can always play with your Roomba.

MORE: New Robot from ‘BigDog’ Makers Moves Eerily Like a Human

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