A small group of Japanese researchers are hoping to emulate the success of the open source movement, and what it has done for the Linux operating system, in the world of humanoid robots.
The researchers, part of the Japanese government-funded Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project, have been working for the last three and a half years on the development of a humanoid robot named 'Pino'.
The robot is named after Pinocchio — the wooden doll in the classic children's tale that tried to become human — and shares his namesake's long nose, while the project gets its name from its leader, Hiroaki Kitano, an expert in artificial intelligence.
Now, with the project approaching its final year of initial funding and the robot largely complete, the group is publishing full technical details of Pino, both software and hardware, on the internet in the hope that it will spur further development.
"With Open Pino, hopefully we will be the Linux of robots," said Yukiko Matsuoka, a member of the project team, of the open source initiative that began in late 2001. "We hope that universities and research laboratories will build on our work and, just like Linux, any development must be provided back to the Open Pino community."
Since first publishing details on the internet, the team has received enquiries from more than 6,000 people and has begun selling kits of parts needed to build Pino. At around £5,200 per kit, most people would not class them as cheap but the team is proud of the price.
In fact, when Sony unveiled its latest humanoid robot last week, the SDR-4X, Toshitada Doi, the head of Sony's robot division, said he expected the SDR-4X would cost about the same as a luxury car when Sony puts it on sale later in the year.
Selling the Pino kits to consumers would entail compliance with various safety regulations and so, at present, they are only available to universities and researchers, although the team hopes to produce a cut-down version later this year for sale to individuals.
Other key objectives of the project have been a human interface and appearance that would be attractive and non-threatening to people and the development of robotic control systems including an artificial intelligence-based self-learning system. Matsuoka said the team has succeeded on both those fronts. The group already has a functioning model and is now concentrating on developing the software systems, especially the artificial intelligence, she said.
Pino has even found fame. It played a starring role in a music video by Hikaru Utada, one of Japan's most popular female pop singers, and its cute design and long nose is now well known to many people. With the publishing of full specifications, the group hopes researchers will pick up the information and develop successors that will eventually be even better known.
The Open Pino project can be found at www.openpino.org.