What a difference a robot-year makes.

Only last year, Honda Motor Co.’s
now-familiar humanoid robot, Asimo, was learning how to run and avoid
tripping over obstacles. Now, the five-year-old droid is ready to take
on simple office work, greeting visitors and fetching refreshments.

third-biggest auto maker, known for its cutting-edge robot technology,
introduced on Tuesday a second-generation Asimo that can also push a
cart weighing up to 10 kg (22 lb), walking straight, sideways or
backwards with it.

With more joints and flexibility of movement, Asimo can now also grip and carry a tray of drinks, placing it safely on a table.

its latest tricks through video footage, Honda showed the 130 cm-tall
(4.25 feet) Asimo addressing a mock visitor by name and showing her to
a conference room, all the while maintaining a steady and natural
distance from the guest.

"Welcome, Sato-san," Asimo said, bowing deeply as per standard Japanese etiquette.

pre-programming the guest’s name, meeting room and other data in an IC
(integrated circuit) tag to be worn by the visitor upon arrival, an
office worker can remotely send commands to Asimo, which in turn would
pick them up through a built-in IC tag reader.

Behind the
seemingly simple tasks are a myriad advanced sensor, image and voice
recognition and other technologies that Honda says will be applied to
its core automotive business to improve safety and other features.

The bubble-headed droid can also run twice as fast as a prototype unveiled last December, at 6 km (3.7 miles) an hour.

eager to entertain, Asimo prepared to demonstrate his increased speed
by mimicking a runner stretching before a race, extending his arms and
balancing on one leg at a time to loosen his ankles in a fluid,
human-like motion.

Asimo then took his mark and, joints creaking, dashed across the stage, easing to a complete stop in just four quick steps.

said it would start putting the new Asimo to use at its research and
development facility in Wako, near Tokyo, from spring 2006. It will
also eventually be made available for leasing.

By Chang-Ran Kim

More here.