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A Friend for Those Remotely Interested

July 11, 1999|SAM BRUCHEY

Once, as a child, I was given a plastic gray robot for Christmas. It was no larger than a shoe box and ran on four size-D batteries that I stuffed into its back. Its eyes glowed red, and it could walk, albeit stiffly, one foot over the other while blowing smoke through a hole in its head. Usually, my robot marched eight or nine steps before seizing up, running out of smoke or both. Then one day, sometime in March I think, its little red eyes dimmed for good.

Today's robots are more than just toys and eminently more advanced. Honda's P3 robot, for example, has two independent legs and knee joints as well as balls on its feet allowing it to climb stairs and walk at the same pace as your average Joe, even over tricky terrain, like a bumpy backyard or shag carpet. The P3 can even perform menial tasks, like carrying trays and pushing carts, though it can only do these things for about 15 minutes.

Honda's alabaster Frankenstein has the icy stare of a Storm Trooper and is made entirely of magnesium that is powered wirelessly. Weighing almost 300 pounds but measuring under 5 feet tall, it operates much more efficiently and looks more sleek than its dimensions would suggest.

Why has Honda built such a thing?

Company spokeswoman Lynda Sakamaki-Smith says the P3--and its predecessors, P1 and P2--are intended to "enrich" lives by doing things ordinary people cannot or would not want to do, such as working at a toxic dump. But that's a long way off.

"It's not like you could come home and have your P3 cook you dinner," Sakamaki-Smith says.

So far, Honda has built only one stiff-legged giant, and says the product may never be manufactured for the general public. Honda has, however, run advertisements for the P3 in magazines such as National Geographic to let consumers know the company makes more than just cars and lawn mowers.

More than likely, says Sakamaki-Smith, Honda will use its P3 technology to design cars that steer themselves by clinging to magnetic strips on roads, which is something, she says, the company is working on.

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