Robot- [rəʊbɒt]: a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. But despite what scientists in labs or lexicographers in libraries say, Honda’s pet robot Asimo feels substantially more than just a simple blanched automaton. Why? Because when you first see him walk into a room, you’re left with a sense that something properly alive has just wandered in. Not a spine-shivering horror-movie feeling - Asimo is friendlier than that - but we’ve all seen too many Terminator flicks not to find an animate droid just a little bit odd.
Honda is hoping we’ll collectively get a little more comfortable with humanoid helpers, because ultimately, in a departure from punting out bread-and-butter Civics, it wants to actually sell you an Asimo.
The grand plan is for household Asimos, helping out the elderly or the disabled, and generally being useful. That dream is some way off for now, because Asimo is just an engineering project and can’t actually think for himself with any relevance to real-world situations. He’s even got three controllers to make sure he doesn’t go AWOL.
He’s still fascinating, though. And strangely appealing. Weirdly, there’s a character here - a personality you want to befriend and experience. Even the Honda engineers admit they have a favourite version. The one we’ve seen today is their preferred ‘bot because he’s better at picking out the markings on the floor which direct him through his various pre-programmed routines.
There’s no reason for it. Technically, ‘our’ Asimo and the one waiting in reserve, the slightly dodgy substitute with a habit of throwing the game away, are identical. But these character traits, which shouldn’t exist in near-identical collections of metal and plastic, only reinforce that feeling of something being not quite normal here.
Yes, we keep referring to Asimo as ‘him’, unlike the Honda boffins who insist on referring to Asimo as ‘it’. But if you meet him, you’ll agree that it doesn’t feel right to dehumanise him.
But you can go too far with the humanity, apparently. Get a bit too close for comfort. They can become too familiar to us - scientists call this the Uncanny Valley. Show us a machine that looks like a machine, and we’re indifferent. Yet as the design gets more human-like, we get more attached. There is then a tipping point, where if the robot gets too lifelike, we freak out and turn the power off. Hence the reason that Asimo has a mask and a helmet.
Which brings us to the meeting of the two white non-humans. Asimo, poor little thing, seemed genuinely excited to meet what he must have thought was what he’d be when he grows up. Like watching a puppy meet a full-grown pitbull.
Asimo tried to please, he really did, and there was a vague hint of a smile beneath his visor, but The Stig was indifferent. Not nasty, but very much on a different intellectual level.
We tried to introduce them, then the thing in white got impatient with the robot in white, and simply drove off. Proving that, in a battle of white goods, there can only be one winner.
Pictures: Alex Lake
This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine