Researchers Dream of Humanizing Androids

Recent developments in robot articulation have focused on providing walking robots with the ability to modify their gait in real time and creating humanoid robots for health-care applications.

Anybots' Dexter demonstrates adaptive locomotion, and it's no pushover in the agility department. Its stiff gait is initially unimpressive, until you see that it's self-balancing and its steps are not scripted ahead of time. Instead, Dexter improves its walk as it goes, and brushes off a less twinkle-toed robot's attempt to push it over. Dexter can even jump, remaining airborne for more than a third of a second.

Despite the enormous expense involved in most android research, amateurs prove that much can be accomplished on a tight budget.

Mark "Android Man" Miller doesn't like to be distracted. He has no phone in his Tallahassee, Tennessee, workshop, and he's removed the ringer from the one in the house. "I have been working quietly for decades," Miller said. "The android is soon to have its day."

He taught himself electronics in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, he was writing his own software. And now, he's making fully articulated humanoids out back.

"I want everyone to know how you can play in this arena on low budget, and build something more than a toy," Miller said. "My efforts are all at least 4 feet tall, have lots of room for more goodies and playful expansion, and can be built for a few hundred dollars."

When even the most amazing technologies can't live up to the science-fiction dreams of half a century ago, humanoid robotics might seem a thankless arena of research. It's a very human attribute that drives researchers like Miller and Or forward: dogged dedication.

"When I first started the project a few years ago, a lot of people told me that it was impossible to make a flexible-spine humanoid robot (that could) walk," Or said. "I followed my passion and succeeded."

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