TOKYO It was fitting that a little guy named Asimo helped Japan ring in the new year. A nation that grew up on Atom the boy robot and a bevy of other humanoid cartoon 'bots gaped as this Tin Man from Honda walked, bowed and waved to the crowd during NHK's splashy New Year's Eve TV gala, an annual fete that draws an audience rating of up to 50 percent.
"I belong to the Atom generation," declared Asimo's prime mover, Toru Takenaka, the chief engineer at Honda R&D Co. Ltd. "When I was a child, I loved Atom and Tetsujin 28 [another cartoon robot], and I used to be immersed in the robot world."
He still is. Takenaka will be among the managers watching closely as Honda prepares to take orders for rentals of Asimo the name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility starting in April. Though details such as the fee and maintenance conditions have yet to be hammered out, Honda sees business users as its first targets. The carmaker intends to show how the 4-foot, 95-pound robot works by renting it to organizations that run museums, scientific exhibitions, showrooms and fairs where many people gather. Customers can begin using Asimo for jobs like receptionist or product presenter as Honda itself is doing in a huge TV ad campaign for its cars this fall, part of the company's trial attempt to move robots into Japanese society.
It may not be a hard sell. Japan is robocountry, where many manufacturers, such as Matsushita and NEC, along with universities and research institutes, are working on robots. At least two companies besides Honda Sony Corp. and Tmsuk Inc. are rolling out their own commercial robots, even as publishers and moviemakers continue to conjure up the imaginary kind.
"Universities and some other organizations overseas have advanced technologies in robots," said Toshitada Doi, corporate executive vice president of Sony, who led robot development there. "But no other companies outside of Japan are conspicuous at present" in the drive to bring the 'bots mainstream.
The image in Japan, largely inspired by the cartoon culture, is of robots serving as human helpmates, and that is how the trio of robot makers is pitching the humanoid models they are bringing to market here. "There are always robots, such as Atom and Doraemon, with Japanese children, so the Japanese are implanted with an idea that robots are friends or partners from their childhoods," said Yasuhiro Kobashi, chief executive officer of Tmsuk Communication Technology Inc., a promotion and sales subsidiary of Kyushu-based R&D venture company Tmsuk. In fact, robot comics are far from kid stuff here. Even adults read comic books, some of which are accepted as masterpieces.
But Kobashi hinted of a darker side to the robomania that seems about to take hold. "At present," he said, the Tmsuk 04 robot, which is already being sold to research organizations for $45,000, "can pull the trigger of a gun. Even if the first purchaser is a goodwill organization, if it sells the robot to someone else and the second buyer is, say, a cult and has some evil intention, it can be very dangerous."
Indeed, Kobashi said Tmsuk got inquiries from the U.S. Army, among other organizations, when it put Tmsuk 04 up for sale a year ago. "We need some rule to be established to own a robot, like the license system to own a car," he said.
Robots like Atom, Tetsujin ("Iron Man") 28, Eightman, Doraemon and Robocon, ubiquitous in comic books and TV cartoon shows, are not evil-doers but beloved partners and friends to humankind. Atom, created by one of Japan's most famous cartoonists, Osamu Tezuka, is the pioneer.
Tales about this autonomous humanlike robot, who conducts himself according to his own moral judgments, were published serially in a boys' magazine from 1952 to 1968, aired on TV starting in 1963 and were exported to the United States (as the "Astroboy" cartoon) in the 1960s. The comic books are still in print here today, and Sony Pictures Entertainment is producing a movie version in Hollywood for release in 2003, the date Tezuka defined as the year of Atom's birth.
"Robot researchers in Japan are all Atom freaks who are excited when they think about what to do for Atom's birthday in 2003," said Akinobu Kamebuchi, president of Nippon Broadcasting System Inc., one of the sponsors of last fall's seminal Robodex2000 in Yokohama. Both Honda's Asimo and Sony's humanoid-robot prototype, SDR-3X, took star turns at that show, claimed to be the world's first exhibition of robots designed as partners for humans.
Some Japanese executives say the show was a harbinger of things to come. "A decade from 2000 will be the era of robots," Sony's Doi declared. "And the robot industry will eventually exceed the PC industry [in size], though it won't happen in the first 10 years."
Just what will all these robots do? Amuse us, for starters. "We dare to say that Aibo is useless; it does nothing," Doi said cheerfully, speaking of the lionlike toy robot that Sony now sells for $1,500. As for the SRD-3X, "We do not push our humanoid robots to do something useful," he said. "Our researchers are working hard to make them dance better."
But Honda and Tmsuk foresee a more utilitarian role. At Asimo's announcement, Honda touted the robot's potential to assist people in daily life it's tall enough to reach light switches and tabletops, for example or to take on jobs in hazardous conditions. Tmsuk, for its part, has added a heavy-duty model to its lineup, the Tmsuk 05, that it says is sturdy enough to handle disaster-relief applications. This robot, however, looks far from human. It's basically a box with "hands" and wheels.
Few besides Tmsuk's Kobashi are talking publicly about what could happen if highly capable robots were to get into the wrong hands.
Robodex drew some 20 exhibitors to the premiere 2000 event and expects more this year. "After we closed [the deadline for] applications, a large number of companies and organizations found out the exhibition was going to be held and rushed to [get in]," said Sony's Doi, who was the originator of the event. "We are sure that the number of exhibitors should jump [this year]."
Developing robots that can be produced in volume for a mass market takes "a huge investment," Doi said, one reason he believes foreign companies are shying away from the field. Sony chalks off its investment as a market-building step, though Doi declined to comment on the exact amount the company has sunk into robot technology.
Sony began taking orders for its second-generation Aibo in November, at the time the humanoid SDR-3X prototype rolled (or actually danced) out onto the Robodex stage. This two-legged, or bipedal, model stands 20 inches tall, weighs 11 pounds and walks at a speed of 15 meters per minute. Sony engineers made it small for reasons of cost: Smaller is less expensive. At Robodex2000, a squad of the 'bots was put through its paces; the robots squatted, danced and otherwise strutted their stuff. One of them recognized a ball of a certain color and kicked it into a net.
Though the SDR-3X is not designed to do any particular tasks, "the basic technology of bipedal robots for entertainment and utilitarian purposes is the same," said Doi. "Eventually there will be no need to divide entertainment and task robots."
The SDR-3X is designed on the Open-R hardware/software architecture, which Sony proposed as a robot design platform in June 1998. The system core and hardware components such as the head, legs and arms are linked by the Open-R bus by means of 10-pin connectors. Software modules animate functions such as movement, speech recognition and image recognition, and the architecture defines interfaces for each software block. Sony's proprietary Aperios real-time operating system powers the setup.
This configuration offers easy expandability, according to Sony, which developed both the Aibo and the SDR-3X around the same Open-R architecture.
The SDR-3X employs two 64-bit MIPS RISC processors: one for information processing and the other for motion control. For the biped robot, Sony engineers developed two technologies: actuators that move the joints and a scheme called "whole-body coordinated dynamic control" for real-time control of the joints. The actuator the core of each joint is an integrated device consisting of a motor unit, a gear unit and a control ASIC. Actuators come in three sizes, to move the body, legs and arms respectively.
Fast, smooth gait
Likewise dazzling the Robodex audience were Honda's P3 and Asimo robots. Asimo, in particular, drew gasps by striding onstage with a fast, smooth gait (it can walk at a mile an hour). "With Asimo, we want to establish an environment so that robots can fit in with human society," said Hiroyuki Yoshino, chief executive and president of Honda.
Yoshino pointed out that many technologies, such as sensors and actuators, are common to both robots and cars. Hence the carmaker's involvement, which dates back about 20 years, to a time when bipedal walking was considered impossible. "But we aimed at humanoid robots from the beginning," Yoshino said. "We are confident that we are one of the companies most seriously working on humanoid robot development."
Honda first explored a biped walking mechanism in 1986, with its E0 robot. Subsequent work evolved into the humanoid P1, P2 and P3 and culminated in Asimo, a more nimble, downsized "people-friendly" version that stands 48 inches tall about the size of a first-grader vs. 64 inches and a strapping 268 pounds for the P3.
Nuts and bolts
Asimo, which is run by an operator, has a distributed-control system using multiple microprocessors. The main PowerPC processor controls the overall walking process and the operations of the hands and arms. Each of the robot's 26 joints also has a microprocessor that controls its movement. "These CPUs are not special ones. A CPU with Pentium III-class power is enough for the main CPU," said Takenaka, the chief engineer. He declined to say what kind of processors are used in Asimo's joints.
The distributed processors form a kind of local-area network, but unlike the LAN in a PC, this one requires real-time processing. Honda engineers developed interfaces for that purpose. For example, the i-Walk ("intelligent real-time flexible walking") program enables Asimo to change its step patterns at any time, on the fly. Since the necessary walking patterns are generated in real-time, the robot doesn't have to come to a dead stop to turn and avoid obstacles. It can sidestep them without missing a beat.
Announced in 1997, the beefy P3 prototype walks up and down stairs, and recognizes marks painted on the steps with its CCD image sensor. Asimo is not yet equipped with an image sensor, and, "We have not tried [getting] Asimo to climb stairs," Takenada said. "But we have completed the walking-software module, so Asimo should be able to do so once it is installed without tuning the software specifically."
The next challenge for Honda engineers is to give Asimo recognition capability and make it autonomous rather than operator-controlled. As another target, Honda intends to raise the robot's walking speed.
Asimo and Sony's SDR-3X are androgynous robots, akin to C3PO in Star Wars. But the Tmsuk 04 is a girl, with the hint of a Valkyrie-style breastplate and a bell-shaped, floor-length "skirt." And that's not the only way the Tmsuk model differs from the bipeds of Honda and Sony.
Tmsuk, which spun out of conveyer-belt manufacturer Thames K.K. a year ago to focus on robot development and sales, puts its models together using existing technologies in Tmsuk 04, two notebook PCs and Japan's PHS (personal handy-phone system) network for remote control. The Tmsuk robots don't walk, however. "Biped walking is not usable as a practical application at present," said chief executive Kobashi.
Tmsuk 04 stands 4 feet tall, moves on tires or roller-style treads, and has seven joints on each arm and three in each hand, all run by wires. Two Windows 98 notebook PCs embedded in its body handle control and image recognition, respectively. They are also the reason for the Scarlett O'Hara skirt: Tmsuk 04 keeps the PCs demurely tucked beneath it.
Tmsuk 04 captures images by means of a CCD camera in its head and transmits them to the monitor at the operator side, part of a remote controller that also contains hand-shaped manipulators and a pair of PHS terminals. The operator can control the 'bot by simply watching the screen and moving the manipulators; the robot will simulate the movements accurately.
Since the control signal is sent through the PHS network, operator and robot can truly be remote from one another. Thus, an operator in Okinawa, the southernmost spot in which PHS service is available, could control a robot in, say, Wakkanai, Hokkaido, the northernmost area of service, some 1,500 miles distant. The span could even stretch to the United States, for example, if a U.S. digital cellular phone network were to connect (or "roam") with a PHS network, Kobashi said.
"If wideband CDMA becomes available, more sophisticated and faster control will be possible," he said.
Tmsuk engineers began building robots in 1993 as the development division of Thames, creating models under the names Tmsuk 01 to 04. In January 2000, newly independent Tmsuk started selling the 04 at about $45,000 apiece. It has sold 15 units so far, all to research institutes for R&D purpose, Kobashi said. "We are running on a self-supporting accounting system, so we have to sell to get revenue," he said. "We launched this business to create a robot market."
Tmsuk 04 is intended as a platform for developing application-specific variations. Its wire-driven hands can hold an object weighing roughly four to six pounds intentionally weaker than humans. By contrast, the rugged new Tmsuk 05, designed for hazardous duty, has hydraulic arms and can lift objects of several hundred pounds.
Tmsuk 05 sales will begin this year, under the same cautious guidelines the company applies to its predecessor. Tmsuk keeps close tabs on where its 'bots go. The plan is to sell to organizations with which Tmsuk can conduct a kind of joint development.