Let’s assume that someday you will have, in your home, a humanoid robot helper. The robot, because it’s shaped like you, can use your tools and move easily around your house. It folds the laundry, it helps your elderly mother up the stairs, and on Sundays it makes brunch for the family. It’s capable of handling almost any household chore you can throw at it.
Now let’s imagine that you’re out on the lawn, kicking a ball around with your son. Your robot helper is in another part of the yard, its back to you both, fixing a drainpipe. Your son misses a kick, and the ball winds up a few feet from the robot. “Hey, robot!” you shout. “A little help?” The robot turns in place, spots the ball, walks over, and kicks it back to you. The game resumes.
Of all the tasks you would undoubtedly love to hand off to a robot assistant, fetching a soccer ball is probably low on the list. And yet in 2010, there is no humanoid robot on Earth that can consistently do something as simple as turn, spot, approach, and kick. Never mind helping Grandma to bed or starching your shirts. Broken into a daisy chain of input, calculation and action, just kicking a ball is incredibly hard. It’s so difficult, in fact, that engineers from all over the world have embraced it as the modern era’s standardized test of humanoid-robot sophistication, and they converge each June at an event called RoboCup to try it. This year, only one adult-size, self-contained, humanoid robot in this country can even attempt it.
Its name is CHARLI-L (the “L” stands for “Lightweight” and the rest for “Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence”). Created at Virginia Tech, it’s America’s first true humanoid, in that it requires no remote power source or computer, it stands roughly five feet tall and has arms and legs, and it walks—left, right, left, right—like a human.
As such, CHARLI-L belongs to an exclusive international club of humanoid robots (see an illustrated overview of said club here), each of them designed to hasten the day when robots play a central role in all of our lives. Japan and South Korea dominate this club, together outspending the U.S. in civilian robotics many times over. Japan’s Asimo, a humanoid first built in 1986 by the Honda Corporation and now in its 12th generation, and Korea’s Hubo, built to compete with Asimo in 2004 by Jun-Ho Oh of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), are the pride of their nations. Honda is said to have put $300 million and more than 100 worker-years into the first Asimo. Dennis Hong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at VT, laughs at the idea. “That guy,” he says, pointing at CHARLI-L, “was 12 undergrad and grad students in a year and a half, with seed money of $20,000.”
WATCH CHARLI-L IN ACTION