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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 January 2007, 08:42 GMT
March of the consumer robots
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, Las Vegas

Asimo was centre stage at CES
Home robotics is a growing trend at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. But are visions of mechanised-man servants still a long way off?

Mankind has long been fascinated with robots.

Perhaps Isaac Asimov knew the impact his short story collection I, Robot would have on the world when he wrote the nine tales making up the book. But in putting pen to paper and imagining a world where humans and robots shared their lives he ignited an interest that shows no sign of waning.

At CES, Honda's robot Asimo , whose name bears only coincidental connection to the famed science fiction writer, lopes gently around the giant stand.

The machine is currently starring in a series of adverts for Honda, demonstrating the firm's commitment to innovation.

It is the face of cutting edge robotics, a vision of where consumer robotics is hoping to reach and itself a prototype for the types of machine that could one day be in our homes.

'Continuing research'

Asimo project leader Stephen Keeney says Honda is committed to one day selling the machine.

"We are continuing our research in hopes that we can one day introduce Asimo into a home, or a hospital or maybe someday it will be fighting fires.

We need Asimo to be smart enough to understand what we want it to do and they go and do it
Stephen Keeney, Asimo project leader

"We are committed to making Asimo a reality in the future."

Asimo has been in development for 20 years and its skills include walking forwards, backwards, up and down stairs, as well as running.

It may not sound very advanced but there is computational power equivalent to five of the most powerful PCs inside Asimo and the greatest technological leap is in its mastery of walking.

"We started out studying how people walked," says Mr Keeney.


"Until we started studying it we didn't know really how people walk.


"It's something we all do naturally. But no-one had studied the mechanics of walking before because there was no need."

It took 10 years to master walking and a further 10 to refine it, says Mr Keeney.

So how do the robots you can buy for the home match up?

One of the world's most popular robots, the Roomba, has been sold to more than two million homes worldwide.

It is a cleaning robot that scuttles around the floor vacuuming.

'Touch lives'

Matt Palma, of US firm iRobot, said: "The vision of the company is to build robots that can touch people's everyday lives."

iRobi wants to be your friend

Founded in 1990 by MIT roboticists Dr Rodney Brooks, Helen Grainer and Colin Angle, the firm also produces robots to the military.

More than 700 tactile robots - or tacbots -are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping soldiers to stay out of harm's way.

"The robots we make are extremely effective at doing the job they are designed for.

"People are intrigued by robots. The promise of robots has been around for a long time.

"We are now seeing the practical application of robots."

The company has announced the release of a version of Roomba, iRobot Create, that is fully programmable, hoping to inspire a new generation of robot builders.

At CES there is a number of robots that are designed to make people's lives easier.


There are at least five other firms selling floor-cleaning robots while WowWee produces robotic toys, such as the RoboSapien.

WowWee unveiled its new toy, RoboQuad

There is also a home version of one of the most famous robots in recent history - R2D2.

It can stream music from an MP3 player and can also project video.

A Korean firm at the show is marketing a networked robot, called iRobi. It is being sold as a friend to your children, a security guard and entertainment device.

The machine has wi-fi built-in and can deliver news reports, weather, recipes and act as a karaoke machine in the evening.

A spokesman for the firm said: "If you go out you can call the iRobi over your phone and check that the house is safe."

At $3,000 it is an expensive way to join the robotic revolution. But there is still no price tag on Asimo.

Honda will not reveal how much it has spent developing the robot but Mr Keeney said it was considerably less than is spent on developing a prototype vehicle.

In the last year Asimo has mastered running and more importantly, the ability to react to a changing environment.

"With running - we are trying to get Asimo to stay upright, to react quickly," says Mr Keeney.

"We want him to be able to cope with children running through a home, or pets."

The robot, like other consumer machines on show, has been designed to be personable and human.

"We definitely want people to feel that Asimo is approachable - that they would want it to be part of his home.

"That's why he is human size - about 130 cm tall; not so large that it would be imposing to small children in a home environment.

"But it is still big enough to do things for you - to open and close doors, switch on and off lights, go to the medicine cabinet.

"We do want people to feel it is something they can accept in their home."

So what does Mr Keeney make of the growing trend of consumer robotics?

'Definitive perception'

"Any robotic technology which makes people more accepting of having robots in their home is great.

"We have all grown up with movies like Star Wars and Terminator and have a very definitive perception of what robots are.

"We are trying to change that perception with Asimo.

"The reality of humanoid robots is going to be much different from what we have seen on television."

The next hurdle for Asimo is better artificial intelligence.

"We need Asimo to be smart enough to understand what we want it to do and they go and do it.

"We are still in the infancy of artificial intelligence."

Robots in Japan doing the household chores

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