Honda's ASIMO Gets New Job at Museum

Honda's famed humanoid robot ASIMO has many skills, including running, serving drinks, hopping on one foot, and kicking a soccer ball. And it absolutely loves to dance. But despite its capabilities, the reality is that most of ASIMO's actions are pre-programmed, and the humanoid relies heavily on hidden operators monitoring the robot's every move and triggering its responses, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Now Honda wants to change that and it has recently started testing new autonomous behaviors for ASIMO at a Tokyo museum. The new gig, however, seems to have had a rough start.

Following several prototypes, Honda unveiled the first version of ASIMO more than a decade ago. Since then the robot has been redesigned twice and Honda has steadily pushed the robot out of the nest, taking it all over the world for a variety of public presentations. The demonstrations are carefully choreographed, with an entourage of engineers keeping track of things behind the scenes. So when the company unveiled the latest version of the robot in 2011, it said it was moving it gradually towards more autonomy.

To test the robot in real-world conditions, Honda set up ASIMO as a tour guide at Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The company wants to see if the robot can autonomously interact with visitors, answering questions and explaining things. The goal, it seems, is finding practical applications for the humanoid, which has cost Honda millions of dollars and is regarded by critics as a mere expensive toy.

But in a presentation to reporters last week, ASIMO was misbehaving. The Associated Press reports that the robot suffered some software-related hiccups and didn't perform as expected. In the demo, ASIMO asks people to raise their hands to ask it a question. But it appears that the vision system couldn't tell the difference between a raised hand and a hand holding up a smartphone. ASIMO seemed to get flustered by the cameras, sheepishly repeating its canned invitation, "Who wants to ask ASIMO a question?"

Another issue is that the robot's ability to interact with people is still rather limited. ASIMO is equipped with natural language processing and is even capable of differentiating between three speakers talking at once. But the speech recognition software is a work in progress, and for the museum experiments Honda chose a simpler method to take questions: visitors simply tap on a touchscreen. It's hardly the kind of personal interaction visitors would expect from one of the world's most advanced humanoid robots.

"Right now, it can recognize a child waving to it, but it's not able to comprehend the meaning of the waving," Satoshi Shigemi, who leads Honda's robotics efforts, told the AP. He admitted more work is needed, and explained that in the future ASIMO may assist people at train stations.

If you ask me, Honda should embrace both autonomous and teleoperation capabilities and put ASIMO through bolder demos. It should foster more robotics research outside its headquarters, through its subsidiary R&D centers and partner university labs, sharing more results with the research community and incorporating these results into the robot's public performances.

Sure, like many big corporations, Honda is conservative and won't take unnecessary risks in these demonstrations. But perhaps this latest mishap at the Tokyo museum is the sort of rude awakening the company needs. Honda has been pumping up public expectations of ASIMO for years, and it would be a really bad thing for robotics if the humanoid ends up disappointing its fans, especially as other robots become more advanced, raising the bar for what people expect them to do.

ASIMO is an incredible feat of engineering, so there's really no reason not to incorporate the operator into demonstrations. In fact, this approach would be a more honest presentation of the robot's capabilities (and limitations), and, more important, it could help inspire the next generation of engineers to someday fulfill ASIMO's promise. The wizards behind the curtain should be part of the show!

[ Honda ]

Images: Honda

UPDATED 9 July 2013 8:54 a.m. EST: Corrected reference to first version of ASIMO, which was unveiled more than a decade ago, in 2000, and not "nearly two decades ago."

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