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 robot is 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 hand The 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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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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