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Humanoid evolution

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"It's not going to hurt you," said a mother to her young daughter as they made their way toward the North Carolina School of Science and Math on a recent Saturday morning. They and I--and scores of other humans--had come to see a public demonstration of ASIMO, a robot designed by Honda, in the school's auditorium.

According to its creators, ASIMO is "the world's most advanced humanoid robot that is able to walk and move like a human." The notion of a robot demonstration in 2003 seemed so incredibly quaint that I couldn't resist the free invitation.

The last time I'd encountered a functional robot was during a field trip to a museum in Atlanta, circa 1983, with my third-grade science class. More recently I'd encountered two robots of dubious functionality at a junk store in Berlin, and I'd heard word of a clunky, old-school robot inhabiting a street-level window of a house in Baltimore.

After the audience had been thoroughly primed with upbeat dance music and video footage of yesteryear's "inferior" robots, ASIMO strutted nimbly (but slowly) onto the stage. The four-foot tall, 115-pound plastic-coated contraption looked more like a miniature astronaut than a traditional robot. ASIMO waved hello to everyone. Everyone waved hello to ASIMO. Some people cheered. Although this robot appeared totally harmless, I held out hope that it harbored laser beams in its eyes, capable of vaporizing certain audience members in my vicinity--namely those who had neglected to turn off their cell phones.

Soon enough, ASIMO demonstrated its bag of tricks, which included walking a figure eight, and ascending and descending a half-flight of stairs. These ambulatory feats took a full 17 years to perfect.

And then ASIMO exited the stage before its battery pack expired.

"One day," according to Honda, "ASIMO could be truly useful in helping people with important tasks, like assisting an elderly person, or getting medicine for someone confined to a bed or wheelchair."

One day, maybe. But what about the laser beams?

I left the auditorium feeling less than recharged myself, resolving to keep my eyes peeled for old-school robots the next time I'm in Baltimore.

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