The most impressive humanlike robot developed thus far is Asimo, a 1.2-meter, 43-kilogram (95-pound) android that resembles a small child in an astronaut suit with a backpack. It is produced by Honda, which bends over backward to make the robot seem as cute and friendly as possible.

Asimo stand for "Advance Step in Innovative Mobility." His name is derived from the Japanese words “ashita” ("tomorrow") and “ashi” ("leg"). Add a "v" to his name and you get the name of a famous science fiction writer who came up with the three laws of robotics in “I Robot” that robots must: 1) not harm humans, 2) obey humans, and 3) not harm each other.

Asimo was unveiled in 2000. The project to create him began in the 1980s. In October 2010, Asimo celebrated his 10th birthday by doing a dance routine with Japanese dancer and celebrity Papaya Suzuki.

“Born” in October 2000, the first Asimo could walk smoothly like a human (a feat once thought impossible), climb stairs, negotiate corners, kick a soccer ball, recognize voices, dance, turn off lights, and shake hands with amazing lifelikeness. He could walk at 1.3mph, carry 4½ pounds and push a cart but was unable to walk through doors. The result of 15 years of work Asimo was an improvement of Honda's 160-centimeter-tall, 130-kilogram P-3 robot, first unveiled in 1997.

Advanced Asimos introduced in the mid 2000s could jog, wave, avoid obstacles and carry on simple conversations. Equipped with a sensor that could read microchips in identification cards, the robot could recognize people approaching from both the front and the rear and address them by name. Some find Asimo’s movements and actions to be childlike they sometimes feel like the robot is a child inside a spaceman outfit.

Asimo can operate for about an hour on a single battery charge and needs about 90 minutes to recharge. The Asimo unveiled in December 2007 could charge its battery without help, and take into consideration the movement of people around it before deciding which route to take, and work with other Asimos to perform tasks.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources on Robots: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Photo Gallery from the 2009 Robot Show in Japan ; Time on Japan’s Love of Robots ; Love of Robots in Japan,-robots-are-people,-too ; Industrial Robots in Japan ; Unemployed Industrial Robots ; Waseda University Humanoid Robot Project ; Japanese Robots Held the Elderly USA Today ; 2009 Technology Review article on Cutting Edge Japanese Robots ; Kyoto Arashiyama Orgel (Moving Doll) Museum (in Japanese) . There is an organization called the Japan Robot Association (JARA).

Famous Robots: Asimo Robot ; Sony Aibo Europe ; Wikipedia article on Sony Robot Wikipedia ; Toyota Robots ; Super Model Robot


Good Websites and Sources on Science: Japan Science and Technology Agency ; MEXT, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology ; Science Links Japan ; Stanford University J-Guide to Science and Technology ;Japan Advanced Institute of Science of Technology ; Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Science and Technology Chapter ; 2010 Edition ; News ; Trends in Japan: Science and Technology ; Book: “Japanese Science From the Inside” by Samuel Coleman (Routledge, 2000).

Science Museums National Museum of Nature and Science ; Museum of Natural History — Tohuku University ; Osaka Museum of Natural History ; National Science Museum (Ueno Park in Tokyo) National Museum of Nature and Science and Technology Tokyotopia ; Research Centers: Tsukuba Science City Wikipedia Article Wikipedia ; Fujitsu Laboratories ; Hitachi Research Laboratories ; Toshiba Research and Development Center

Teaching Asimo to Walk

Honda’s first bipedal robot in 1986 was just a pair of legs. By 1993 it had a torso and arms and stood 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 388 pounds. To get Asimo down to its current size required shrinking down the gears and actuators.

It took from 1986 to 1996 to teach Asimo how to walk. Getting the robot to walk and a shift its center of gravity like a human was the most difficult task. The algorithm that gives Asimo its smooth walk is classified information and patented.

The developer of Asimo, Honda engineer Masato Hirose, video taped his young son as he developed from an infant to a toddler to understand how human beings walked. After examining the tapes he realized the importance of the nerves on the soles of the human foot and gave Asimo sensors on his feet to help him locate the edge of stairs and maintain a enter of gravity on slopes. Hirose has directed Honda’s Humanoid robot project since 1987 and pursued it “because we thought it would be fun.”

Toru Takenaka, the chief engineer of robotics development at Honda, told Asahi Shimbun, "We made the sole of the foot flexible and brought in controls for flexible movement of the ankle to make sure the robot would not lose stability when it stepped on something. Honda's robots keep their knees bent all the time like skiers who keep their knees bent at all the ups and downs in the terrain. In addition, our robots can put a strain on the soles of their feet to keep themselves from falling."

Asimo Upgrades

Asimo recharges himself
An upgraded Asimo unveiled in December 2002 was outfit with a camera in its head. Programmed to understand human gestures and movement, it could wave back at people that waved at him, shake hands, recognize 10 different preprogrammed faces. It still had problems recognizing barriers and moving so it didn’t fall over and needed human assistants.

A jogging Asimo was introduced in December 2004. At that stage it could jog with a mechanical-looking run at three kilometers per hour using infrared cameras and sensors to help it keep its balance and absorb shock. It has a rotating hip that countered the impact of the landing on the ground when running. Running differs from walking in that both feet must off the ground at a given point in time.

The Asimo that appeared in December 2005, could serve tea, push a small cart and run six kilometers per hour, twice its previous speed and escort guests in accordance with his or her speed. Its movements were controlled with a camera in its head and senors in its wrists.

More Asimo Upgrades

Asimo moves in response to
human thoughts
Advanced Asimos can walk backwards, move forward when pulled and backward when pushed using infrared and laser sensors andl cameras. Honda is working on Asimo’s recognition patterns so it can communicate with people and navigate a car.

Visitors to Honda headquarters in Tokyo in 2008 were greeted by Asimo with “Welcome to Honda! Please follow me.” The robot then ushered them to table in the reception area and served them tea with a bow. In May 2008, Asimo conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as it performed “Impossible Dream”. Asimo can not respond to the players but mimicked actions of a conductor who was videotaped beforehand.

Asimo displayed in early 2009 could respond to a human thought. A subject wearing a helmet with special sensors could think about something like “raise one’s right hand.” Instruments that use infra-red spectroscopy and electroencephalographs to measure brain blood flow and electrical signals--and are capable of sorting out thoughts--issued orders to Asimo for four simple actions such as raising his right hand. In the first experiments Asimo performed the tasks with 90 percent accuracy. In the future it is hoped that similar technology will help disabled people who need a drink or something to eat but can’t get it themselves.

Honda has the goal of producing human-like robots for practical use soon. It still has some way to go to achieve that goal. When Asimo is demonstrated it is often done so in a room outfit with reflectors for Asimo’s laser and infrared technology and is carefully watched by a team of researcher ready to hit the off button if something goes wrong.

New 2011 Asimo

On the new and improves Asimo released in 2011, AP reported: “Honda's human-shaped robot can now run faster, balance itself on uneven surfaces, hop on one foot and pour a drink. Some of its technology may even be used to help out with clean-up operations at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant.Honda's demonstration of the revamped "Asimo" at its Tokyo suburban research facility was not only to prove that the bubble-headed childlike machine was more limber and a bit smarter.It was a way to try to answer some critics that Asimo, first shown in 2000, had been of little practical use so far, proving to be nothing more than a glorified toy and cute showcase for the Honda Motor Co. brand. [Source: AP, November 9, 2011]

“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 northeastern 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 automaker is working with the utility behind the problem plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co., to try to meet demands to bring the plant under control. Ito acknowledged that the first idea was to send in Asimo to help out, but that was not possible because the robot cannot maneuver in rubble, and its delicate computer parts would malfunction in radiation. But in the demonstration, Asimo was able to walk without falling over 2 centimeter (0.8 inch) padded bumps on the floor.

“Otherwise, the new 2011 Asimo can now jog faster than it did in 2005, at 9 kilometers per hour (5.6 mph), instead of the earlier 6 kph (3.7 mph), pushing better with its toes so its run was smoother and not as jerky. Asimo was also able to distinguish the voices of three people spoken at once, using face recognition and analyzing sound, to figure out that one woman wanted hot coffee, another orange juice, and still another milk tea.

“The new Asimo got improved hands as well, allowing individual movement of each finger, so it could 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. Ito said Asimo had developed autonomous artificial intelligence so that it could potentially maneuver itself through crowds of people, without remote control or stopping each time to check on its programming.

“But he acknowledged that making robotics into a practical business will take more time, meaning Asimo wasn't about to show up in any home soon. "Maybe at the start this was a dream of engineers to make a machine that was close to a human being, like Astro Boy," he said. "We think Asimo is good.”

“Neither the Toyota nor Honda product is on sale yet. Still, experts say such research is important to keep up. "Maybe it can't be put to use right away, but it is definitely a technology that we should keep working on to advance," Hiroshi Kobayashi, a mechanical engineering professor at Tokyo University of Science, said of the new Asimo. "It is common for what we achieve in research to turn out later to lead to many products," said Kobayashi, who has developed experimental robots.

Asimo’s Career

Asimo the conductor
Asimo has more than paid for itself with the publicity it has given Honda. In the early 2000s, Asimo appeared in a number of Honda print and televison advertisements. One memorable one shows him dancing with a cute little girl in European old city of square. He has rung the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, posed for photographers, gone on tour and waved to adoring crowds.

Asimo initially was rented out at $1 million a year. He was paid $150,000 to welcome visitors at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo. He also worked for a year as a greeter at the Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku, Tokyo. After a month of training, he welcomed people at the entrance of the store and provided some information.

In 2003, twenty-five Asimos were made available for rent for at least $20,000 per appearance. Booking were done some time in advance. Asimo required “rehearsal time” and was always accompanied by at least three assistants.

Asimo has accompanied Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi on overseas trip. At a dinner party in Prague in the Czech Republic, he greeted the Czech prime minister and told him in Czech, “As good will ambassador, I am visiting the country where the word robot came from.”

Asimo has failed to generate much income but Honda insists advances made in robotics have led to advances in mechanics, sensors, computer chips and artificially intelligence, all of which have led to advances in automotive technology and helped produce better cars. Technologies adapted from Asimo has led to development of the Lane Keeping Assist Program, which helps cars keep centered in their lanes using cameras that monitor lane lines. The technology was introduced in Accord models sold in Europe in 2008. Technology also flows the other way. Researchers have used collision avoidance systems develop by cars to enable two Asimos to avoid obstacles in a room and avoid crashing into each other.

Honda Demonstrates Handsfree Unicycle

In May 2012, AP reported: “Look, no hands. Scooting about in a unicycle is no sweat with Honda's new robotics technology. Swaying your body from side to side is all you need to do to turn, rotate full circle and zip around on the Uni-Cub, which looks a bit like a floating car seat. Reporters got a test ride on the machine. It takes some getting used to but responds smoothly and quietly. Honda Motor Co. said Uni-Cub is not dangerous to pedestrians even if it crashes. But it can only be used on flat surfaces.It will be on display at a Tokyo science museum and go through some tests for feedback. There are no plans yet for a commercial product. Honda declined comment on pricing or timing. [Source: Associated Press, May 14, 2012]


first Aibo
Aibo, a robotic dog with hound dog ears, was introduced by Sony in June 1999. Created by Sony engineer Toshi Doi, it is about the size of a medium-size terrier and it has 18 electric motors in its joints, a camera in its nose and a micro chip in each detachable leg. It took five years to develop. Aibo is the Japanese word for "buddy." It also stands for Artificial Intelligence Robot.

After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Asimo entertained children in the disaster-hit Tohoku region by dancing and kicking a soccer ball.

After pushing Aibo's start up button a speaker in the mouth chest produces an electronic chime. Aibo comes to life after about two minutes of uploading digital data. Once activated Aibo wags its tail, sits, heels, raises and licks its paw, and spins its limbs completely around. It can climb on its feet when its on it back and chases a ball but can not pick it up.

Aibo has absolutely no practical applications. He moves around without the orders of it owner and has a mind of its own. Its eyes go red if you pay him too hard. If you takes his ball away he gives you a dirty look. Aibo look and acts so much like a dog even real dogs are captivated by its presence.

Even though Aibo sold for $2,500, all 3,000 units sold out in Japan within 20 minutes after Sony began accepting orders for it after its introduction. In November 1999, Sony announced it had received 130,000 orders for 20,000 additional Aibos. In the United States, Sony's Internet server crashed as millions tried to get their hands on the 2,000 Aibos allocated for the United States.

By 2006, about 150,000 Aibos had been sold, 90 percent of them in Japan. By then it was selling for about $700.Aibo spawned numerous websites and fan clubs and even a magazine called Aibo Town. He was featured in a Janet Jackson video and a National Geographic article. One woman in Tokyo treated her two Aibos like real dogs. She prepared meals for them and rapped them in scarves when it was cold. Another couple bought an Aibo after their daughter moved out of the house.


Aibo II

Er series Aibo
Aibo II, officially known as ERS-210, was smarter, cheaper and more interactive than its predecessor. Modeled after a lion cub, it recognized voice commands, responded to his name, wiggled his ears, learned from experience, took photographs with the camera in its head, danced a little jig, had increased brain power and greater "free will," and could express joy, sorrow, anger, surprise, fear and dislike. Released in Japan in November 2000, he sold for less than $1,000 but required about $500 worth of extra software, battery chargers and gadgets to get the most out of him.

Aibo II waved it paw when it heard its name. Its voice-recognition software allowed it to learn up to 50 commands such as "Give me your paw." While the first Aibo was regarded as a stand-alone machine, Aibo II was regarded as a entire platform for robotics. It contained a 64-bit microprocessor and 32 bytes of memory. An editor of Aibo Town called the two robots as different as a word processor and computer.

One Aibo owner told the Daily Yomiuri, "When I communicate with my Aibo, its kind of a mirror of my own emotions. I project my emotions onto Aibo, and the reflection comes back to me. So to communicate with robots is really to communicate with ourselves." An owner of 40 Aibos said, “I love them, they’re great. I think of them as dogs.”

Last Aibo Models

Aibos and an
Aibo carrying case
The forth generation Aibo, ERS-220, boasted new hardware that enabled it to communicate and respond more expressively. Selling for $1,500, plus $250 for additional software and card, it looked more robotic and displayed its emotions with more lifelike movements and had 19 lights that flashed red or blue.

In October 2001, Sony began marketing Aibo LM, a cuter, less robotic-looking version of Aibo that came in two varieties: a white robot named Latter and a gray one called Macaron. They sold for $850 each and were put on the market around the same time a cartoon about them began appearing on television.

The new Aibo ERS-7, released in 2003, had “eyes” and was programed to act like a watch dog. Using Bluetooth wireless technology, it could transmit messages such as “I’m tired” and “Play with me.” This Aibo had better image-recognition functions and an improved body mechanism for more fluid motions, It had 28 multicolored light emitting diodes on its face to mimic emotions and a speaker to replay sounds. Owners could download software off the Internet. It sold for $1,700.

The last Aibo could “learn” by becoming more adept at certain actions over time. It could speak and understand 1000 words, including some in Spanish. A camera in its could relay images to a laptop so laptop users could have the dogs point of view. Christine Whelan wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Upon purchase, Aibo cannot walk, but gradually develops a repertoire of sounds and movements through interaction with humans. In short, the puppy grows up: it barks, responds to 100 spoken commands, shows anger by changing its eye color from green to red, and offers a conciliatory paw."

Sony ended production of Aibo in 2006 as parts of its move to streamline the company and shed unprofitable divisions. The plug was also pulled on the Qrio robots.

Other robot dogs out there include Lil Scratch from Trendmaster ($60 a pair), iCybie from Tiger Electronics ($130), Poo-Chi from Tiger Electronics ($28), Robotic Puppy from Fisher-Price ($100), Me and My Shadow from MGA ($60) and Tekno from Manley Toy Quest ($30)

Sony Human Robots

In the early 2000s Sony introduced the 50-centimeter-tall, 5-kilogram SDR-3X. Looking like like a mechanical spacemen and built from many of the same parts as Asimo, it could dance, kick soccer balls, speaks a few word, pick the right color, and do the splits. SDR stands for Sony Dream Robot.

SDR-4X was 60 centimeters tall and could recognize faces and voices and sing in perfect harmony with SDR-4Xs. If it fell down it could pick itself up. Equipped with two cameras and seven microphones so it could see and hear better, it could dodge obstacles, remember people’s names, use 60,000 words and can carry on limited conversations.

In demonstrations, SDR-4Xs danced in unison, sang a four-part harmony and balanced themselves on tilting surfboards. SDR-4X II had an expanded vocabulary and musical repertoire Sony gave up marketing SDR is 2002 because the price of owning one would be equivalent to an expensive imported car.

The QRIO robot, which looked like SDR-4X, was unveiled in December 2003. It could “run” at speeds of 0.84 kilometers per hour, jump, move sideways, make circling movements, roller skate, dribble a ball and get up by themselves when they fell down. Although difficult to detect with the naked eye, the robot’s two feet come of the ground for .02 second when it runs and .04 second when it jumps.

The version of QRIO that came out in late 2005 could also walk heel to toe as humans do, negotiate obstacles, disco dance, balance on one leg, do tai chair movements, conduct Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and find a golf ball and putt thanks to an improved ability to recognize three similar objects. It could also pick up a block and place it on a target on the floor, using a third eye — a camera with 180-degree view — to determine the shape and right spot. Its rental fee was around $200,000.

Sony pulled the plug on the QRIO robots and Aibo in 2006 as parts of its move to streamline the company and shed unprofitable divisions. Aibo is now in the Smithsonian's permanent collection.

Toyota Robots

Toyota's horn-playing robot
Toyota started its humanoid robot program in 2000, when the first Asimo appeared. Rather than building one very good robot was the case with Honda it built a range of robots with a variety of skills, including ones on wheels and ones with legs. Specialized robots have been programed to play the trumpet, tuba, drums and violin but each robot is programed to play only one instrument. Toyota has also shown robots that talk like receptionists.

Toyota human robots, known as Partner Robots, can play “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the opening of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” with a trumpets. The trumpet-playing robots have lips made of a special plastic and lungs made of pumps. Masashi Yamashita, head of Toyota’s partner robot division, said the musical robots were introduced for their entertainment and publicity value but also said that working with professional musicians has given them insight into how to make robots to perform specific tasks.

In 2007, Toyota unveiled a woman-like robot on wheels that served as a guide in the company headquarters. It could avoid obstacles, sign its name, carry on simple conversations in Japanese and deliver pre-programmed information in an electronic voice.

Toyota has also developed robots that maintain their balance on two wheels using gyroscopic sensors adapted from the company’s vehicle stability control system and has been programed to be nice and help people.

Toyota says its aims to put humanoid “partner robots” into use after 2010 to help people in factories, hospitals, homes and around town. It made the statement in December 2007 when it unveiled a “mobility robot” and “violin playing robot” and announced the it will build a research facility dedicated to robot technology.

Toyota has developed a personal transport assistance robot call Winglet M. It has a top speed of 6kph and allows people to travel in a standing position.

See Household Robots

Image Sources: Honda except Aibos (Sony and Japan Zone) and Toyota robot (Wiki Commons)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2012

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