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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 13:35 GMT
Honda's humanoid robot hits UK
By Roland Pease
BBC Science producer

The robot Asimo could, given current naming trends in the music industry, almost be a pop star.

Asimo
Asimo has been touring the world
As the Asimo world tour reaches the Science Museum in London, the label seems rather appropriate.

But the robot's contract is not with EMI, but with Honda. And the world tour is intended to showcase the Japanese company's prowess in humanoid robotics.

Germany, the Czech Republic, France and Ireland have all had their dose of Asimo fever. Now it's the UK's turn, and for a week the diminutive humanoid will be strutting its stuff at the Science Museum.

Engineering success

Roboticists I have spoken to in the past are truly impressed by Asimo's powers, and also by the Honda robotics team's immense but undisclosed budget.

For people having to work with limited funds, there is pride in attempting elegant solutions to the formidable problems of robotic walking and stability.

So there is a hint of inverted snobbery in the occasional condescending comment on Honda's full-frontal assault combining massive computing power with overwhelming engineering know-how.

But if you stopped for a moment to think seriously about the challenges involved, the stage show, during which the robot sure-footedly strode up a flight of steps, waved its arms, rocked from side to side, and balanced on one foot, was a persuasive demonstration of the success of Honda's approach.

Comic appeal

Not that there were not moments of comedy. There was an embarrassing silence the first time the master of ceremonies asked Asimo if it was enjoying itself.

Or the whispered instructions "don't move", if Asimo came too close to you, lest you disturb its navigation systems presumably.

As I grabbed my interview with the head of Honda's European Research division in the wings stage right, I could see a back-up Asimo waiting in the background in case number one failed, always a wise precaution in robotics.

The demonstration was immensely slick and highly choreographed. True, you could not expect much else when the UK's press had been invited along.

But there is more of a sense of the pioneering spirit when you visit a roboticist's laboratory, and see the foul-ups as the machine's circuits get tangled up in some infinite loop.

That is real research. Asimo, back in Honda's Japanese lab, is a frontline research project.

On tour what you see is a kind of highly polished facsimile, like some smartly manufactured pop act. Almost a toy, but a very expensive and deeply impressive toy.



You can hear more about Asimo on the BBC World Service programme, Go Digital




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