Robot Madness: Walk Like Humans Do

A member of the Dutch RoboCup team, which is to participate in the 2008 RoboCup Soccer competition in China this summer. (Image credit: TU Delft)

In Robot Madness, LiveScience examines humanoid robots and cybernetic enhancement of humans, as well as the exciting and sometimes frightening convergence of it all. Return for a new episode each Monday, Wednesday and Friday through April 6.

Robots are stepping out everywhere these days, from fashion show catwalks to the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. But not all of them walk the same way, or with the same purpose.

A Japanese humanoid robot made its debut this week at a fashion show, although news reports noted that its smooth walk still didn't measure up to the stride of a human supermodel. HRP-4C represents just the latest robot attempting to achieve bipedal walking, which remains a distinctly human feature in comparison to most animals.

Contrast that with the four-legged BigDog, a mechanized mule of a 'bot that is reportedly undergoing field trials with U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan. BigDog can run at up to 4 mph, climb 35-degree slopes and navigate rubble while carrying up to 340 pounds.

Robots certainly need not be limited by the range of human motion, and yet many laboratories all over the world are working on two-legged robots. The difficulty of creating a comfortably bipedal 'bot means that such prototypes may not find such immediate practical use, as opposed to robots that take on whatever form their function requires.

However, the urge to create artificial beings that move like people may reflect more about humanity's ongoing fascination with itself. And the human-robotic merger shows no signs of slowing down over the coming decades.

{{ video="LS_090309_04_ItWalks" title="It Walks! - Robots Perambulate with Extreme Caution" caption="Human footsteps are actually a controlled kind of falling. Robot technologists try to be as brave as human toddlers, on the path to building truly mindful Artificial Intelligence. Credit: Thomas Lucas, Producer / Rob Goldberg, Writer" }}

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Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.