In science fiction, humans often interact with life-like robots who can perform a wide range of functions. Though currently we are nowhere near the sophistication of Star Wars’ C3PO, Honda is making great strides in that direction. ASIMO, Honda’s human-like robot can perform and amazing array of activities that before only humans could.
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Honda began developing the prototypes to the Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, or “ASIMO,” in 1986. The first three models (E1 through E3) focused on what engineers felt was the most difficult task; walking on two legs. The following three models (E4 through E6) focused on balancing those legs. Those first six prototypes took a combined six years to perfect. These were followed by “humanoid prototype models” in 1993, 1996 and 1997 and were numbered P1, P2 and P3 respectively. P1 was over 6 feet tall and weighed almost 400 pounds. By the P3 model, the size and weight of the ASIMO prototypes were a mere five foot two inches tall and weighed just under 300 pounds. At this point the P model prototypes had the ability to walk, climb and descend stairs as well as complete a handful of other engineer-controlled movements. The first true ASIMO debuted in 2000 and was improved upon; ASIMO “for hire” was produced in 2001, “intelligent” ASIMO in 2002, “next-gen” ASIMO in 2004 and “New” ASIMO in 2005. Throughout those model iterations, the functionality of ASIMO was improved and advanced. Currently, there are 47 ASIMOs in operation.
ASIMO has mastered basic functions such as walking, running, dancing, and climbing stairs and uneven terrain. Additionally, ASIMO has been programmed to understand a limited amount of verbal and non-verbal commands. Honda engineers have also programmed ASIMO to grasp objects with its hands, to remember faces, and to be able to remember rooms as it walks through them, so that when it returns, it can navigate it more easily.
According to Honda, ASIMO was meant to be a helper to human beings in a household environment, particularly people who are bed-ridden or in wheelchairs. ASIMO’s size is deliberately set at four feet tall to “look” its owner in the face. Currently, however, ASIMO is only used in Japan and is mostly used as a guide in museums or as a greeter of visitors for some companies. There are currently no plans to sell ASIMO in the United States.
ASIMO is a specific type of robot called an “Android” meaning “human-like.” As an android, ASIMO has been programmed to do a number of human-like things. Famously, the “next-gen” ASIMO showed off its dance moves (perhaps ironically doing the “Robot” to techno music) in 2004. The “new” ASIMO took that appreciation of music a step further and played a violin. Later, Honda executives staged a publicity stunt where ASIMO conducted an orchestra.
Additionally, ASIMO can use its programming to recognize when a collision is imminent and can avoid it smoothly. This applies to stationary and moving objects as well; one of ASIMO’s feats was avoiding another ASIMO; both ASIMOs were able to detect small shifts in each other’s movements and correct themselves accordingly, proving that ASIMO could “think” its way out of a situation.
Though ASIMO can “think” its way out of simple situations or recognize faces, it is not a true “Artificial Intelligence” or AI. To be considered an AI, ASIMO must be self-aware (in other words, it knows that it is a computer) and it needs to be able to teach itself. Currently, ASIMO only knows what its programmers “tell” it through software coding. Still, the abilities of ASIMO are steps toward AI status; problem solving, noticing differences and recognizing individuals.
It is perhaps ironic that in 1970 a Japanese scientist named Masahiro Mori first postulated the so-called “uncanny valley” in relation to robots. In essence, Mori postulated that as robots come to look and more more like humans, the more humans would be repulsed by robots. Somewhere deep inside human beings, there is the sense that “something isn’t right” about the robot and that sense translates into fascination, revulsion and fear. While humans can “forgive” the odd movements of a somewhat-humanoid ASIMO, if a similar robot had a latex face which moved when it “talked” or walked or did any of those actions, it would activate the “uncanny valley” reflex. Zombie-like movement in horror films, prosthetic limbs and other unnatural movements also activate the “uncanny valley” feeling in humans.