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Engineers Create a More Lifelike Robot

In the endless quest to create a robot that looks and moves like a human being, researchers have broken new ground: giving a robot a complex muscular system that accurately mimics some human movements.

Kenshiro, who was developed by University of Tokyo engineers, made his debut at the Humanoids 2012 conference in Osaka, Japan. Kenshiro is roughly the size of a 12-year-old boy – about 5 feet, 2 inches (158 centimeters) tall and weighing 110 pounds (50 kilograms), according to IEEE Spectrum, which co-sponsored the Nov. 29-Dec. 1 conference.

Weight, in fact, was a critical issue in Kenshiro's design. The robotics engineers had to carefully balance the relative weight between Kenshiro's torso and legs to get him to move naturally, and they used lightweight materials including aluminum to make his rib cage and other skeletal components. (Bones made on a 3D printer were discarded due to their frequent breakage.)

But what really sets Kenshiro apart is his muscular system, involving 160 pulleys mounted to the skeletal frame. There are 50 pulleys in the legs, 76 in the trunk and 22 in the neck. No other robot has come close to that number of muscular components, according to IEEE Spectrum. A video of Kenshiro in action reveals his naturalistic ability to point, squat and perform other lifelike movements, though some other motions seem far from humanlike.

And Kenshiro's wobbly, mechanistic efforts at walking suggest engineers have a long way to go before anyone gets fooled into mistaking a robot for a human. After all, the human body has about 650 skeletal muscles, and many more involuntary muscles that control everything from pupil dilation to the beating of the heart.

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Marc Lallanilla
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.