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Humanoid Robotics

Early Endeavors

Photo: WABOT 1 WABOT - 1 Humanoid Project at Waseda University

With the rise of the computer, people immediately began to envision the potential for encoding human intelligence into textual programs, but soon discovered that static programs and rule-based logic cannot capture the true essence of human intelligence. Early attempts to create artificial intelligence produced information-processing machines that operated on high-level human concepts, but had difficulty relating those concepts to actions and perceptions in the external world. Estranged from perception and action, such intelligence derived meaning only as an extension of the human creator or user.

Once embodied in real robots, such programs were confounded by noisy and all-too-often inconsistent data streaming in and out from a host of real-world sensors and actuators. Intricate path-planning routines allowed robots to optimally traverse their internal environments, but were rendered meaningless as soon as the robot, inevitably, became disoriented. This correspondence problem hindered robots’ ability to generalize knowledge and adapt behavior, resulting in hard-coded functionality applicable only to highly structured, specialized tasks such as factory automation. Most roboticists forsook the goal of human-like cognition entirely and focused on creating functional, high-utility agents.

Nonetheless, as roboticists continued, mostly from a mechanical point of view, to develop new robotic tools for a variety of purposes, they gained a new respect for the human body a platform that remains unmatched for versatility and adaptability. Accepting what they believed to be one of the greatest engineering challenges of all time, a few intrepid mechanical and electrical engineers began to build the world’s first humanoid robots. In 1973, the construction of a human-like robot was started at the Waseda University in Tokyo under the direction of the late Ichiro Kato. He and his group developed WABOT-1, the first full-scale anthropomorphic robot in the world. It consisted of a limb-control system, a vision system and a conversation system. WABOT-1 was able to communicate with a person in Japanese and to measure distances and directions to the objects using external receptors, artificial ears and eyes, and an artificial mouth. The WABOT-1 walked with its lower limbs and was able to grip and transport objects with touch-sensitive hands. At the time, it was estimated that the WABOT-1 had the mental faculty of a one-and-half-year-old child. In 1985, Kato and his research group at Waseda University built WASUBOT, a humanoid musician (WAseda SUmitomo roBOT), developed with Sumitomo Electric Industry Ltd. WASUBOT could read a musical score and play a repertoire of 16 tunes on a keyboard instrument. Since these early successes, the Japanese electronics and automotive industries have played a key role in the emergence of humanoids by creating robots of humanoids by developing robots capable of walking over uneven terrain, kicking a soccer ball, climbing stairs and performing dexterous tasks such as using a screwdriver and juggling. At the present time, we have full-scale humanoid robots that roughly emulate the physical dynamics and mechanical dexterity of the human body.

Photo: WABOT-2 WABOT-2, an anthropomorphic robot musician.

It remains to be seen to what extent we can breathe life into these creations. Ever since Karel Capek’s play "Rossum’s Universal Robots" captured the public’s imagination in 1921, popular film, fiction and television have ingrained in our minds the possibility of intelligent, anthropomorphic robots that may eventually eliminate and replace mankind. Is it possible that we will eventually find ourselves surpassed or even displaced by our own creations? Or will humanoid robots, despite our best efforts, remain little more than smart appliances? As we examine many of the top humanoid projects in the world, this paper presents the reader with a great diversity of projects that take us closer to an answer.


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