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Robotics Science

One Giant Step for Humanoids 223

An anonymous reader writes "There are a few robots that do amazing things. Honda's Asimo can walk backward and climb stairs. Sega's idog can dance to music. A tougher nut to crack has been making robots walk like humans. Today, scientists introduce three humanoid striders at the annual AAAS meeting. Unlike other robots that have to power every move, these three save energy by letting gravity do a lot of the work. Like humans, they pick up their feet and just let 'em drop. Engineers say they'll inform the next generations of humanoids and also improve design of robotic prostheses for people. And hey, why not send them to Mars to look for those microbes?"
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One Giant Step for Humanoids

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  • sites (Score:5, Informative)

    by r84x ( 650348 ) * <r84x@yahoo.GAUSScom minus math_god> on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:20PM (#11706551) Homepage Journal
    Here are the homepages for the biped labs of the three universities represented in the article.

    Delft []

    Cornell []

    MIT []

  • Prosthetics (Score:5, Informative)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:20PM (#11706554) Homepage Journal
    Robotic or semi-robotic prosthesis are going to be more and more in demand because ironically of advances in battlefield armor. Current flak jackets (body armor) and helmets are protecting the vital bits of our soldiers, but often limbs (and necks) are sites of damage from explosions and firearms. Many of these soldiers are undergoing amputations either in Iraq or more commonly in Landstuhl, Germany and coming home with prosthetics of varying sophistication.

    There are a couple of interesting recent additions to the Internet that cover these issues. One is an article [] by Steve Silberman [] in Wired [] and the other very interesting site is Stuart Hughes blog []. Stuart is a world news producer with the BBC who unfortunately stepped on a landmine covering the Iraq war and now writes fairly frequently about "stumpy" and his prosthetic leg.

    • Re:Prosthetics (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ZephyrXero ( 750822 )
      Kind of ironic if you think about it huh? In movies, you always see scientists working on projects to help people only to have them used by the military in the end...and now we're seeing the opposite ;)
      • Re:Prosthetics (Score:4, Interesting)

        by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:55PM (#11706864) Homepage Journal
        We scientists are always making stuff the defense department is interested in. You would absolutely be amazed at the possibilities that people think of for basic science research. In fact, I am going to be meeting with a bunch of DOD folks in a couple of months because they are interested in what we are doing. Not everything the DOD does though is involved with taking of life. There is a considerable interest in battlefield medicine and such. At any rate, this is an aspect of the Bush administrations push to applied as opposed to basic research that troubles me. We should not push basic research to the sidelines because that is where advances start from that yes, even the DOD can take advantage of.

      • The grandparent was referring to the fact that because of advances in armor deaths in war decrease while injuries increase (since more people are getting injured rather than killed).

        What you are referring to is the fantastic notion that technological advances are first applied for peace and then later for war. Since the beginning of humanity technologies developed for war *still* find more practical uses than technologies developed for peace.
    • Re:Prosthetics (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Infinityis ( 807294 )
      Here I thought you were going to suggest using robots instead of humans on the front lines, and then you talked about just fixing humans with robotic parts. I should think someday we won't have to risk lives so often. We'll have robot wars between countries, and people will get used to the idea of not risking their lives to exercise control over others.

      course, that's probably a ridiculous notion...
      • It's not so ridiculous. Aren't we already moving in that direction with highly automated armaments, "smart" bombs, cruise missiles, and now in prototyping, fully automated flying drones? The reason we haven't seen much of it so far is that it has been a long time since we've had full-out combat between two powers wealthy enough to afford it. (Mainly because, I think, countries that could afford it also tend to have nukes.) The U.S. can, and is moving in that direction, but terrorists still prefer the lo
        • Re:Prosthetics (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Basehart ( 633304 )
          "The U.S. can, and is moving in that direction (highly automated armaments, "smart" bombs, cruise missiles, and now in prototyping, fully automated flying drones), but terrorists still prefer the low-tech approach."

          Unfortunately that's why terrorists will have to bring their half of the war into our cities and neighborhoods. As soon as they're unable to spill the blood of their attackers, antagonists, liberators or whatever, they'll start coming after mom and pop on their way to Walmart, Anytown, USA to
      • Re:Prosthetics (Score:5, Insightful)

        by DigitumDei ( 578031 ) on Friday February 18, 2005 @04:22AM (#11709333) Homepage Journal
        While I think many of the worlds top armies are definitly trying to move towards that; the possible drawbacks are rather worse than many may assume.

        Right now, a leader (lets call him bush for the duration of this example), has to be careful when waging war otherwise he will piss off his country thus ruining his and his parties reelection prospects. With the right application of patriotism a leader can get away with waging war, but its still by no means easy to keep up support when parents children are being killed on a distant battle field.

        If the army became completely remote then this political backlash would be greatly reduced since the only loss for that country would be machinery and money.

        War could increasingly become the first option rather than the last as the costs become more and more tolerable. This would result in a unbalancing of power that the world has never seen before. With one or two countries completely unafraid to send in the army while most of the smaller countries face a prospect of having to support huge human armies to counter the possibility of hi tech invasions.

        Drawbacks would be...

        * High civilian/armed forces casualties in lesser countries.
        * Even more terroism as all smaller countries realise their armies can no longer protect them.
        * The rapid destruction of many economies as countries try to keep up.

        As harsh as it may sound, it is good that todays superpowers still have people in their armies. The deaths of those people are what keep politicians in check. Without those deaths, without the political drawbacks they bring, future goverments may make our current goverments of the world look like nobel peace prize winners.
    • my comment: here []
  • Muscles, perhaps? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Avyakata ( 825132 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:25PM (#11706593) Homepage Journal
    " energy by letting gravity do a lot of the work. Like humans, they pick up their feet and just let 'em drop."

    That makes sense, but humans don't really just let their feet "drop." Our steps are actually quite controlled...if we just let gravity pull them down, we'd have pretty heavy footfalls, not to mention an awful lot of shuffling...
    • Re:Muscles, perhaps? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:52PM (#11706839)

      Actually, what you say *seems* intuitively right but is proved not-quite-correct by research in passive-dynamics. The energy required to make precisely controlled steps (i.e., muscularly-actuated) is much greater than the energy humans (or any other legged creature, for that matter) expend on walking. Bipedal walking for animals of our size is possible only because humans have evolved adaptive, energy-saving strategies for bipedal motion (for instance, the long tendons and ligaments of our legs are used as passive energy stores).

      However, this is not to say that human walking is not a complex coordination of many muscular systems. It's just that steps are not as controlled as we'd like to think. This is by design, so that we can adapt quickly to unpredictable surfaces. Robots that try to be very controlled in walking usually are very slow because they must do many dynamic calculations that humans simply don't do because of the way our legs are designed.

      • Re:Muscles, perhaps? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by cnettel ( 836611 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:59PM (#11706899)
        Also, remember that a leg is not dropping. I know you indirectly said so by mentioning the energy stores and so on, but I think it's important to make it an explicit point.

        We approximate a pendulum rather than letting the foot be some kind of ball attached to a "string" (the leg) bouncing up and down. Human movements without a proper grasp of angular momentum gives strange interpretation, like that of the OP.

      • IANAN(Ninja) but During Budo class you learn that Americans walk funny, we're just good enough at it that we don't fall down on our faces. In other countries (Japan) they _pull_ with the lead leg instead of falling on it. The american way looks like a "frankenstein" walk to them. If you walk backwards your body automatically remembers how to walk this way. It feels funny forwards if you aren't used to it, but apparently its great for distance walking and stability.

    • Actually, "letting them drop" isn't very far from the truth. Of course, we don't just let our feet fall straight down. We swing our legs forward and let our feet catch ourselves before we fall flat on our faces. We actually let a lot of the motion during swing phase happen via gravity, as our lower legs rotate down and forward around the knee joint.

      Probably more to the point of what the blurb was talking about, but didn't really explain: human walking uses dynamic stability. During the period of time
      • And compare this to Asimo and the other famous bipedal robots out of Japan - they maintain a statically stable support by balancing the center of mass directly over one of the legs

        That's not exactly true, assuming by "stability" you mean "equilibrium". Asimo and QRIO operate in dynamic equilibrium, keeping the ZMP (Zero Moment Point) over their ground foot at all times. It's not statically stable in the sense that they could stop moving and not fall over. When both feet are down however, they usually d
    • You've never lived in an apartment under people with a toddler, have you?
    • I would think our steps are only controlled when they need to be. Walking on level ground, we're just using passive dynamics.
    • by Illserve ( 56215 )
      You haven't met the guy who lives upstairs from me, have you?

  • Please. (Score:5, Funny)

    by mctk ( 840035 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:26PM (#11706600) Homepage
    Oh sure, they can walk like me. But what's their record on Dance Dance Revolution?
  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:26PM (#11706601) Journal
    there are probably better forms to send there. The rovers are interesting, but they can not cover a large amount of terrain at a time. It would probably be better to have some sort of a flyer, so that it can move quickly for long distances.
    • What kind of wingspan would you need to fly on mars? Now, a Titan flyer could get by with little stubs, or maybe some kind of lighter-than-air flyer, that could easily land to do analysis of objects. We really ought to send flyers into the gas giants, too.
      • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Friday February 18, 2005 @02:42AM (#11708767) Journal

        If you are doing a real flyer, you would need huge wings as the atmospere is thiiiinnnn. But, use some helium/hydrogen in a collapsiable wing, combined with small rockets, it is very doable. Think in terms of a vtol aircraft such as the british harrier. Small wings.

        Of course, a small number of ballons with small camera might produce some very intersting results. While we would not have good control over where they went, they would be close enough to the surface to take some very good pix that could be relayed from sat. above.. These ballons could then be landed with small amounts of equipment, but obviously, this is more of a serindipity approach to checking the surface.

    • They're already out in space... Watch some MST3K and look at MIT's Toddler (Tom Servo), Cornell and Delft look like they are Crow's parents... As for Gypsy... mmmm... Barney's Actimate that was rooted by a vacuum cleaner? dunno...

  • Humanoid! Fetch me a beer! Nice humanoid.
  • Why not? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:39PM (#11706721) Homepage Journal
    "And hey, why not send them to Mars to look for those microbes?"

    Probably because there are much more efficient ways to locomote. Bipedalism is risky, especially if you want to bend over a lot to pick things up.

    I'm in favor of a radially symmetrical spider-like walker that can turn in any direction, or even invert it legs and continue walking if it gets turned upside down. This would make it much more flexible in navigating the Martian environment.

    You could have a central ring with legs attatched all around it, and then a rotating body that includes sensors, power supply, and a grappling hand. The single grappling hand descends from the center and pulls samples up into the body for storage/analysis.

    • Re:Why not? (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:52PM (#11706842)
      "Bipedalism is risky, especially if you want to bend over a lot to pick things up.

      Speaking as an ex-convict I advise taking this man's words to heart.
    • Re:Why not? (Score:2, Informative)

      Well, here's one that was made in the 80s:

      Odex 1 []

      Large and strong, this dude could pick up the end of a pickup truck and move it around.

    • Re:Why not? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by savuporo ( 658486 )
      "Bipedalism is risky, especially if you want to bend over a lot to pick things up"

      Well, if you want a robust robot it must also be able to get up from any position it might get into. Insects have trouble with getting back on their feet if turned on their backs ( and of course yes they are more stable than bipeds when standing up ). But as you'd have to plan for such robustness anyhow in unknown environments, biped is more practical.
      There is another advantage that human-like bipeds hold over other locomot
  • Hats off to the folks who are working on these robots. They truly are amazing bits of engineering. But are we really so narcissistic that we think something that looks and acts human is a good design? After all, the robots that really are useful to us (mostly in manufacturing) don't look human.
    • But are we really so narcissistic that we think something that looks and acts human is a good design?

      It works for the religoius zelliots who think that their god designed them in it's own image, so why not continue the cycle?
    • Likewise, every time we have a science story on slashdot, there's a hundred Monday-morning quarterbacks who know nothing about the field but feel free to criticize the scientists' approach anyway.
  • It still takes a long way to have those robots learn running, crawling, dodging, rolling like Indiana Jones (or Lora Croft, if you prefer your robots feminine). Until then, I won't recommend them for a mission on another planet.

    Seriously, insectoid robots are obviously much more suitable for terrain expedition.

  • But why.... (Score:3, Informative)

    by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @08:47PM (#11706795) Homepage
    Humanoid had to be the worse design as far as robots go. For animals it works because it would be hard for there to be an organic life form with wheels. Maybe something like a self driving segway would work well. They have that other segway wheelchair that climbs stairs and everything. If they spent more time designing the robots to do actual task like identifying objects, picking them up, and operating them, instead of spending the time trying to make them walk, we'd be a lot further along.
    • Re:But why.... (Score:3, Insightful)

      well, it's a migration strategy.

      If we want our robots to live in a human world in our homes and cities they more or less need to fit our form factor. Additionally, if you want the robots to take over jobs like construction then, at first, they will need to be able to drive the decades old machinery - back-hoes, delivery get the picture.

      Going past that stage there is also the psycological consideration: a robot with whom you can shake hands is going to garner more emotional investment from us
  • I can't help it, but alongside the pride and excitement I feel whenever I see technological progress like this I have this tinge of frustration.

    How much money is spent every year on perfume? how many great mechanical engineers are working for sea-doo?

    I mean, we could have so much more! Not just in robotics but chemisty, physics, space exploration...

    But, alas, I know that all work and no play makes humans a dull animal and that that perfume makes ladies smell very nice. Nevertheless, I cannot help this ti
  • I just got my wife a Roomba robot vacum cleaner, and I have to say its one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time. It makes us feel like we're finally in the 2000's to have this little robot rolling around picking up cat hair while you are free to do other things.

    I get really excited about the prospects of putting robotics to use in the home. Sure their use in science is great, but its pretty cool to have "Rosie" cleaning up!
  • Do it while chewing gum? I think not!
  • This website has a neat video of dancing robots on it. It obviously doesn't carry the same implications
    that a low-energy walking robot does, but the motor control and balance gyros and the what-have-you
    needed for this act are still pretty impressive.

    Video []

    Source page []
  • These 'bots are great but they're still kids toys compared to advanced Westinghouse designs from the 1930's. When this robot [] finishes a task he even takes a smoke break !!
  • bah! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by MistabewM ( 17044 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @09:16PM (#11707016) Journal
    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - Robert A. Heinlein
  • by FleaPlus ( 6935 ) on Thursday February 17, 2005 @09:32PM (#11707111) Journal
    For those of you looking for more details, here's the research paper [] published in Science (may need institutional subscription) and videos of all three robots [].

    Here's the abstract text:

    Efficient Bipedal Robots Based on Passive-Dynamic Walkers
    Steve Collins, Andy Ruina, Russ Tedrake, Martijn Wisse

    Passive-dynamic walkers are simple mechanical devices, composed of solid parts connected by joints, that walk stably down a slope. They have no motors or controllers, yet can have remarkably humanlike motions. This suggests that these machines are useful models of human locomotion; however, they cannot walk on level ground. Here we present three robots based on passive-dynamics, with small active power sources substituted for gravity, which can walk on level ground. These robots use less control and less energy than other powered robots, yet walk more naturally, further suggesting the importance of passive-dynamics in human locomotion.

  • Wow, the one from Delft is so minimalist it doesn't even look like a real robot, more like a movie prop of a science project. Considering the bulk of some others like Asimo, and that true bipedal walking was big news only a couple years ago, reducing it to such a simple package is pretty amazing!
  • In my day humanoid robots had to lift their legs uphill in the now both ways. That is if you had legs. My best friend got along fine with a set of wheels.

    These modern robots and their "gravity assisted walking". How Dreadful.

    Cee Threepio
  • wow. i had to look 3 times to read what was actually written there. at first i thought, don't those two words mean the same thing?

    it's time to go home. looooong day at work.
  • Engineers drew from "passive-dynamic" toys dating back to the 1800s that could walk downhill with the help of gravity. Little progress has been made since on getting robots to walk like people.

    This remark is interesting in that perhaps we're not making progress these days because we're not paying attention. We're not looking right.

    The greatest inventors in history likely wouldn't consider themselves "creators" of their inventions so much as "observers" of the natural world. Prior to the past century

  • But can Asimo walk up the stairs backward?
  • This reminds me of a topic I was thinking about recently: the misuse of the word "robot." I believe, as the word was originally intended, a robot is some kind of machine that processes input and autonomously makes decisions and acts accordingly (and with some kind of intelligence, to distinguish from simple logic devices like thermostats.) A drone, on the other hand, is some kind of device which can perform sophisticated mechanical acts, but depends on human command and control in order to act intelligent
  • Engineers say they'll inform the next generations of humanoids...

  • I've told people for years that "AI" has been going the wrong direction. Developments like Deep Blue only helped to feed this (incorrect) belief that "intelligence" very directly equates to "computational ability." This is so wrong, and so obviously wrong.

    Look at your average toddler (I have one at home to study - get your own). Does this child compute the millions of different parameters required to negotiate a different path up, down, around, through, under their environment every time they want to go
    • Huh? I thought that was some sort of pre-conceptual instincts combined with physiological specialization, all narrowed down by millions of years of evolution. Considering humans can sleep-walk, I don't think there is anything at all "logical" going on.
    • Read Jeff Hawkin's "On Intelligence". You'll thank me for it.

      Except if you already have, of course. He argues that intelligence is the ability make predictions of the future. This is very simplified, it'll make more sense in the book. Even if you don't agree with him, it still should be rather obvious by now (2005!) that throwing unbelievably complex algorithms and astronomical number of computer cycles is NOT the way to go for developing real intelligence.
      • He argues that intelligence is the ability make predictions of the future.

        Sorta - I think you missed the main point:

        Those "predictions" are based on matching patterns already "stored" in the neural network matrix. Basically, by his theory, our brains (at least the frontal lobes) take an input, and match that pattern via neural network cascades, which are feedback loops which hook into the motor system, hearing, visual, etc.

        Among other things, this theory easily explains synesthesia - that is, the "crossing

  • Contact Her Majesty's Government ! []

    Silly Walks Director: Mr. Stagback, the very real problem is what I find out. You see, there's defense, education, housing, health, social security, silly walks. They're all supposed to get the same. But last year the government spent less on Silly Walks than they did on industrial organisation. We're supposed to get 348 millions pounds a year to cover our entire Silly Walks proposal. Coffee?

    Silly Walks Applicant: Yes, please.

    Silly Walks Director: Hello, uh, Mrs. Twol

  • " little energy as one-half the wattage of a standard compact fluorescent light bulb."

    Would it have been so hard to just put in a frickin' number!?

  • I wonder which of these would win in a fight?
  • Unlike other robots that have to power every move, these three save energy by letting gravity do a lot of the work. Like humans, they pick up their feet and just let 'em drop.

    Heh, mind your example subjects. Only American's kick their legs when they walk. If you knew that well.. then you knew that. ;)

  • I was pondering robotics the other day, and came to the conclusion that, for the most part, we're going at it all wrong.

    I was thinking that we should instead build each limb as a seperate subsystem, with the nessesary computing equipment built into the limb, along with the power supply.

    One thing about all ambulatory animals, is that the weight is equally distributed throughout the body. It isn't about figuring out how to balance all the weight in a torso, it's about using weight to act as counterweights,
    • On the weight issue - the lighter the limb, the less energy required to move it. That is why fast animals have next to nothing in their legs (think deer or horses).

      The torso mass keeps moving in an almost straight line, requiring little energy to maintain its momentum against drag. Legs actually reverse direction every stride, which takes time and energy.
  • Unlike other robots that have to power every move, these three save energy by letting gravity do a lot of the work. Like humans, they pick up their feet and just let 'em drop.

    Thinking of martial arts, until now I believed that it requires a lot of practicing to take advantage of the gravitation field indeed.


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