Perfecting two legs

2009 Honda Asimo RobotHonda’s human-shaped robot can now run faster, balance itself on uneven surfaces, hop on one foot, pour a drink and even almost “think” on its own.

Honda’s demonstration of the revamped Asimo at its suburban Tokyo research facility was not only to prove that the bubble-headed machine is more agile and a bit smarter – it was also a way to try to answer some critics that Asimo, first shown in 2000, had been of little practical use so far.

Honda President Takanobu Ito told reporters some of Asimo’s technology was used to develop a robotic arm in just six months with the intention of helping with the nuclear crisis in north-eastern Japan.

The mechanical arm can open and close valves at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown after the March tsunami, according to Honda. The car maker is working with the utility behind the problem plant, Tokyo Electric Power, to try to meet demands to bring the plant under control.

Mr Ito acknowledged that the first idea was to send in Asimo to help out, but that was not possible because the robot cannot manoeuvre in rubble, and its delicate computer parts would malfunction in radiation.

But in Tuesday’s demonstration, Asimo was able to walk without falling over 2cm padded bumps on the floor.

It can also now jog faster than it did in 2005, at 9kph, instead of the earlier 6kph, pushing better with its toes so its run is smoother and not as jerky.

Asimo was also able to distinguish the voices of three people spoken at once, using face recognition and analysing sound to figure out that one woman wanted hot coffee, another orange juice, and another milk tea.

The new Asimo has got improved hands as well, allowing individual movement of each finger, so it can do sign language.

“My name is Asimo,” it said, making the signs of its words with stubby fingers.

It also opened a thermos bottle and gracefully poured juice into a paper cup.

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