Even as It Retires, ASIMO Still Manages to Impress

Over a decade old, Honda’s little humanoid robot astonishingly doesn’t seem obsolete

2 min read
A white humanoid robot with a black helmet stands facing the camera
Evan Ackerman

Honda’s ASIMO humanoid robotis retiring. For the last 20 years, ASIMO had been performing at the Honda showroom in Tokyo, Japan, but these regular demonstrations are now at an end. We’ve known for a while that this was coming—Honda announced back in 2018 that it was halting ASIMO development in favor of working on robots with more practical applications, like robots for elder care and disaster relief. But what blows me away about ASIMO, even now, is just how impressive it still is.

The most recent version of ASIMO was announced in 2011. As I watch this performance now, I have to keep reminding myself that this was all happening more than 10 years ago.

That’s decade-old sensing, actuation, compute, batteries—even still, what ASIMO is demonstrating are things that are absolutely not easy for humanoid robots even now. And like, the robot still looks so futuristic, right? The design is wonderful, all the movements are buttery smooth, and ASIMO would not be out of place in any science-fiction movie. This little robot really did set a (still somewhat aspirational) standard, especially relative to other humanoid robots, which have only within the last few years been able to match and then significantly surpass ASIMO’s performance, if not its looks.

The current generation of ASIMO is part of a lineage of humanoid robotics research at Honda stretching back to the mid-1980s:

As recently as 2017, Honda was still making improvements to ASIMO’s software and presenting that research at conferences. Here’s a video from ICRA that year, featuring a naked (!) ASIMO being mildly abused:

But Honda has more recently seemed to realize that they could take the ASIMO platform and the philosophy of humanoid robotics that it represents only so far, and as of 2018 the company shifted development to a clearly ASIMO-inspired but much more robust robot called E2-DR:

Clearly, there’s a lot more potential with a rugged platform like E2-DR, both for research and for exploring practical tasks in the near (or at least nearer) term. I’m glad that Honda is continuing the research into legged robots that it pioneered so many decades ago. But E2-DR is not ASIMO. It’s not trying to be, and that’s probably a good thing, but a part of me still mourns the vision of friendly and helpful humanoids that ASIMO represented.

I’ll miss you, buddy.

A youngish man kneels next to a small white humanoid robot while having one arm around it and shaking its handThe author, a decade younger than he is now, with an earlier version of ASIMO at Stanford University in 2011. Yes, ASIMO is very, very short.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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