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Czech Republic: Humanoid Robot Livens Up Japanese Premier's Delegation

Robots that walk and talk like humans have come a long way in the last few years. Now a humanoid robot has even been included in an official delegation accompanying Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Prague.

Prague, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With his white "suit" and standing at just over a meter tall, Asimo the humanoid robot resembles a diminutive astronaut.

"I am Asimo," he says. "I've come to the Czech Republic, the country where the word robot was invented, with Prime Minister [Junichiro] Koizumi."

Asimo -- or Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility -- can walk on two legs and climb stairs. He can recognize voices and follow simple instructions.

That makes him one of the world's most advanced human-like robots.

And he can also dance, as he showed a crowd of spectators in Prague's national museum today.

As Asimo noted, it was a Czech writer -- Karel Capek -- who first used the word "robot" in his 1920 play, "Rossum's Universal Robots."

That's why Asimo was brought along on Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to Prague this week.

He even attended the official dinner last night and toasted the Czech prime minister, Vladimir Spidla -- himself a bit stiff and robot-like, according to critics.

"Good evening, Prime Minister Spidla," Asimo said. "Pleased to meet you. I am a robot, a goodwill ambassador."

A robot delegate clearly has its advantages. He won't embarrass the host with off-color remarks, or get too tipsy on champagne.

But humanoid robots still have only limited uses, like for entertainment or publicity stunts.

Other robot technology, however, has made some exciting advances -- robot arms already help out in brain surgery. British scientists have developed a snake-like robot spy that can "evolve" and adapt to injury. A robot "suit" is in the works -- one that will help disabled or old people walk, climb stairs, or sit without a chair.

But it will be a while before humanoid robots are advanced enough to even do household chores, says German robot expert Helge Ritter.

"It may seem very difficult and sophisticated to assist in brain surgery, but there the task is carefully cut out and mainly formed in a way that it is largely positioning and high-precision application for very specialized tools. In a household, the problem is basically that there is no high precision around, you don't have any databases about where your objects are, the room can be not cleaned up, there will be objects around, pets and children, you will have deformable objects such as carpets, cushions. And to deal with such a variable environment poses a lot of challenges to robots."

It's almost comforting to see how hard robots find actions most of us take for granted -- like walking and climbing, or grasping objects with a hand.

So why make robots like humans anyway? Ritter says there are several reasons.

One is so they can fit into a world already made according to human needs. It's also easier for humans to figure out how a robot with hands and legs can perform a task than one with wheels.

And then, of course, there's the emotional side. Once robots have sufficiently advanced cognitive skills, a human-like form will greatly smooth communication.

"We use head movements, eye movements, body movements in order to run a dialogue. If someone looks at me I see that now he attends to my words, or I recognize that now it's my turn to step in and say something. And all these things can work in an effortless way only if we also endow our machines with a similar repertoire of reactions -- if we give them heads, or at least if we depict heads on a computer screen that can look at us and give us some feedback if the robot attends to me or a different speaker."

So, while the laughter and applause show what the humans thought of Asimo, unfortunately he isn't able to tell us how he enjoyed his visit to Prague -- not yet, anyway.