Honda demos robot that can run 4 mph and may one day take care of you

"Robot, call 911." Humanoid robot, still in development, designed to be human caregiver

American Honda Motor Co. is showing off a humanoid robot that can climb stairs, run 4 miles per hour and may someday help care for the elderly and disabled.

Asimo, a robot that has been more than 20 years in the making, is being demonstrated at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Part of the Japan Culture and Hyperculture festival, the live 15-minute demonstrations start today and run through Sunday, Feb. 17.

"A lot of people think of Honda as just a car company or motorcycles, but Honda likes to think of itself as a mobility company," said Alicia Jones, a spokeswoman for the company. "We like to enhance people's mobility. The idea behind Asimo is that it would someday be a helper to people inside their homes, maybe the disabled or the elderly."

Jones noted that Honda began working on robots back in 1986, starting out by building a pair of walking legs. In 2000, the company's engineers unveiled an early version of Asimo, or Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility. Asimo made its debut in the U.S. on Feb. 14, 2002, when it rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Today, the robot is able to walk forward and backward, climb up and down stairs, and even run at speeds of nearly 4 miles per hour.

"The walking was the first hurdle, getting the robot to walk smoothly on a variety of different surfaces," said Jones. "Then the running was the next major advancement. People are curious about why we'd care about it being able to run, but we wanted it to respond quickly and move quickly. If a family's dog was running by, we'd want it to be able to get out of the way or run to the aid of the person it's helping."

The robot stands at 4 feet, 3 inches tall, putting it at level with someone in a seated position, noted Jones. It's also at a good height to open doors and windows. The short height also keeps Asimo from intimidating people. "It was designed to be cute and approachable and nonthreatening for a purpose," she added.

While Jones said she expects people to personalize Asimo and to think of it as part of their family, she said giving it the ability to carry on conversations with people is a long way off. No launch date has been set for the robot, but she expects it to hit the market within 10 years.

There's also no set price for the robot, but Jones said she expects it will initially cost about the same as a luxury automobile.

"It has an onboard computer, so the possibilities for it really are endless," said Jones. "You could tailor them for different functions. ... The artificial intelligence part of it is going to be a challenge. It has facial recognition and voice recognition, so you can program in a set of voice commands, and it would respond to you. But I do think having an actual conversation would probably be quite a ways off."

Yesterday, ABI Research released a study predicting that personal robots will become so popular that by the year 2015, the market for personal robotics components will reach $12 billion.

What has driving the market? Consumers are looking to spend less time and effort doing routine chores, noted Philip Solis, an ABI analyst. He also noted that people looking for new entertainment venues, as well as companionship, are expected to spend heavily on personal robots.

Last fall, an artificial intelligence researcher predicted that robotics will make such dramatic advances in the coming years that humans will be marrying robots by the year 2050. Robots will become so human-like -- having intelligent conversations and displaying emotions -- that they'll be very much like a new race of people, according to David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher who authored the book Love and Sex With Robots.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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