Sunday, October 16, 2011


Want a robot to cook your dinner, do your homework, clean your house, or get your groceries? Robots already do a lot of the jobs that we humans don't want to do, can't do, or simply can't do as well as our robotic counterparts. In factories around the world, disembodied robot arms assemble cars, delicately place candies into their boxes, and do all sorts of tedious jobs. There are even a handful of robots on the market whose sole job is to vacuum the floor or mow your lawn.

The ASIMO Robot
Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
Honda's ASIMO robot. See more pictures of robots.
Many of us grew up watching robots on TV and in the movies: There was Rosie, the Jetsons' robot housekeeper; Data, the android crewmember on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"; and of course, C3PO from "Star Wars." The robots being created today aren't quite in the realm of Data or C3PO, but there have been some amazing advances in their technology. Honda engineers have been busy creating the ASIMO robot for more than 20 years. In this article, we'll find out what makes ASIMO the most advanced humanoid robot to date.

Can't be Too Careful
It has been reported that because ASIMO's walk is so eerily human-like, Honda engineers felt compelled to visit the Vatican just to make sure it was okay to build a machine that was so much like a human. (The Vatican thought it was okay.)
The Honda Motor Company developed ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, and is the most advanced humanoid robot in the world. According to the ASIMO Web site, ASIMO is the first humanoid robot in the world that can walk independently and climb stairs.
In addition to ASIMO's ability to walk like we do, it can also understand preprogrammed gestures and spoken commands, recognize voices and faces and interface with IC Communication cards. ASIMO has arms and hands so it can do things like turn on light switches, open doors, carry objects, and push carts.
Rather than building a robot that would be another toy, Honda wanted to create a robot that would be a helper for people -- a robot to help around the house, help the elderly, or help someone confined to a wheelchair or bed. ASIMO is 4 feet 3 inches (1.3 meters) high, which is just the right height to look eye to eye with someone seated in a chair. This allows ASIMO to do the jobs it was created to do without being too big and menacing. Often referred to as looking like a "kid wearing a spacesuit," ASIMO's friendly appearance and nonthreatening size work well for the purposes Honda had in mind when creating it.

ASIMO is 4 feet, 3 inches tall
Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
ASIMO is just 4 feet 3 inches tall
ASIMO could also do jobs that are too dangerous for humans to do, like going into hazardous areas, disarming bombs, or fighting fires.

This looks like a job for ASIMO!
Although ASIMO isn't quite ready for prime time (there are still improvements that need to be made to allow it to fully function as Honda hopes), Honda has put ASIMO to work as a receptionist in its office in Wako in Saitama prefecture, just north of Tokyo. ASIMO spends its time greeting guests and leading them around the facilities.
To perform these duties, ASIMO has to be specially programmed to know the layout of the buildings and the appropriate way to greet visitors and answer questions.
If the thought of an army of ASIMO robots gives you the heebie jeebies, you can relax. Honda says that ASIMO will never be used in military applications.
Graphic courtesy USGS

Magma and Plate Tectonics

The first question this raises is: what exactly is this "material from the inside"? On our planet, it's magma, fluid molten rock. This material is partially liquid, partially solid and partially gaseous. To understand where it comes from, we need to consider the structure of planet Earth.
The earth is composed of many layers, roughly divided into three mega-layers: the core, the mantle and the outer crust:
  • We all live on the rigid outer crust, which is 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 km) thick under the oceans and 20 to 44 miles (32 to 70)thick under the land. This may seem fairly thick to us, but compared to the rest of the planet, it's very thin -- like the outer skin on an apple.
  • Directly under the outer crust is the mantle, the largest layer of the earth. The mantle is extremely hot, but for the most part, it stays in solid form because the pressure deep inside the planet is so great that the material can't melt. In certain circumstances, however, the mantle material does melt, forming magma that makes its way through the outer crust.
The blue lines mark plate boundaries, the red triangles mark active volcanoes and the yellow dots show recent earthquakes.
Graphic courtesy NASA
In the 1960s, scientists developed a revolutionary theory called plate tectonics. Plate tectonics holds that the lithosphere, a layer of rigid material composed of the outer crust and the very top of the mantle, is divided into seven large plates and several more smaller plates. These plates drift very slowly over the mantle below, which is lubricated by a soft layer called the asthenosphere. The activity at the boundary between some of these plates is the primary catalyst for magma production.
Where the different plates meet, they typically interact in one of four ways:
  • If the two plates are moving away from each other, an ocean ridge or continental ridge forms, depending on whether the plates meet under the ocean or on land. As the two plates separate, the mantle rock from the asthenosphere layer below flows up into the void between the plates. Because the pressure is not as great at this level, the mantle rock will melt, forming magma. As the magma flows out, it cools, hardening to form new crust. This fills in the gap created by the plates diverging. This sort of magma production is called spreading center volcanism.
  • At the point where two plates collide, one plate may be pushed under the other plate, so that it sinks into the mantle. This process, called subduction, typically forms a trench, a very deep ditch, usually in the ocean floor. As the rigid lithosphere pushes down into the hot, high-pressure mantle, it heats up. Many scientists believe that the sinking lithosphere layer can't melt at this depth, but that the heat and pressure forces the water (the surface water and water from hydrated minerals) out of the plate and into the mantle layer above. The increased water content lowers the melting point of the mantle rock in this wedge, causing it to melt into magma. This sort of magma production is called subduction zone volcanism.
  • If the plates collide and neither plate can subduct under the other, the crust material will just "crumple," pushing up mountains. This process does not produce volcanoes. This kind of boundary can develop later into a subduction zone.
  • Some plates move against each other rather than push or pull apart. These transform plate boundaries rarely produce volcanic activity.
Introduction to How Volcanoes Work

Volcano Image Gallery
Volcano Image Gallery
Volcanoes are some of nature's most awe-inspiring displays, with everything from exploding mountaintops to rivers of lava. Learn how all the different types of volcanoes work.

Whenever there is a major volcanic eruption in the world, you'll­ see a slew of newspaper articles and nightly news stories covering the catastrophe, all stressing a familiar set of words -- violent, raging, awesome. When faced with a spewing volcano, people today share many of the same feelings volcano-observers have had throughout human history: We are in awe of the destructive power of nature, and we are unsettled by the thought that a peaceful mountain can suddenly become an unstoppable destructive force!
While scientists have cleared up much of the mystery surrounding volcanoes, our knowledge has not made volcanoes any less amazing. In this article, we'll take a look­ at the powerful, violent forces that create eruptions, and see how these eruptions build volcanic structures like islands.
­When people think of volcanoes, the first image that comes to mind is probably a tall, conical mountain with orange lava spewing out the top. There are certainly many volcanoes of this type. But the term volcano actually describes a much wider range of geological phenomena.
Generally speaking, a volcano is any place on a planet where some material from the inside of the planet makes its way through to the planet's surface. One way is "material spewing from the top of a mountain", but there are other forms as well. Check out the next page to fi­nd out more about magma (that "material spewing") and plate tectonics!

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