James May

Asimo the robot

Rage against the machine

It could be argued that Honda has already conquered the world. Its Cub motorcycle of 1958 was, and remains, the true mobiliser of the people, and has been built in such vast numbers that no one is quite sure of the total production figure to date. Last I heard, it was at least 35 million, and rising.

It was Honda, too, that convinced the West that Japanese cars could be good, and it was the Honda Accord that began the demolition of America’s domestic car industry.

And that’s not all. Soichiro Honda was something of an inventor, and developed, among other things, a back-stretching bed for people with lumbar complaints. Honda does a bloody good lawnmower, too.

So it was probably inevitable that Honda would build a robot. You must have seen Asimo by now, and I have finally met ‘it’, as the PR people insist on addressing their creation. And now I’m scared.

On a purely technical level, Asimo is an amazing achievement, because it walks like a human. It’s not always obvious, but walking is an incredibly sophisticated motor function, and replicating it in mechanical form is notoriously difficult. But Honda has done it. Asimo even runs, although when he does, he looks as though he’s had a bit of a mishap in his Hondapants. I had to check that there wasn’t a small boy hiding inside him.

See? I referred to ‘it’ as ‘him’, and that’s the problem. But more of that in a little while.

Compared with you or me, or even Jeremy Clarkson, Asimo is inept. He can’t ride a bicycle or play badminton or tie shoelaces. But remember – he began life 20 years ago as a pair of robotic feet, and now he’s fully formed and able to walk in a circle. It’s only a matter of time.

“Compared with you or me, or even Jeremy, Asimo is inept. He can’t ride a bicycle or play badminton” 

But it must be acknowledged that building a robot in humanoid form is a good way of making life difficult for yourself. It would be much easier to make a robot in the guise of R2D2, with wheels and what have you, but then stairs become an issue. The best way to go up the stairs is in a stairlift, but after that, it’s on legs, so legs it had to be.

But here’s the problem. If he looked like R2D2, I’d have no qualms about giving him a kickingif he bleeped too much or mixed my gin and tonic incorrectly. But I could never kick Asimo. Not with his big electronic eyeballs and his slightly camp cheery wave. That would be like kicking a puppy. Asimo is never rude or difficult. He is an electronic innocent, so it’s very hard not to like him. Asimo has feelings, you know.

Honda believes that some future descendant of Asimo could be a genuine home help to the old, the disabled or the plain lazy. So by giving him a vaguely human demeanour, he is more likeable and companionable, apparently. No one wants an autonomous dustbin whirring around the house. Asimo is your friend.

At the same time, he is small at four-and-a-half feet tall, and speaks with a squeaky asexual voice. This is to ensure that he is not in any way threatening or intimidating to his owner. He has no endocrine organs and no face to speak of. “Isn’t he going to sit down?” I asked a real Honda person as we discussed Asimo and he stood by doing nothing. “It doesn’t need to sit down,” she said, patiently. “It’s a robot. It can stand there for a year. It’s just a machine.”

But is it? It may be a plot.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but trust me. You probably haven’t met him. If you had, you too would feel fondness for him and avoid saying anything derogatory about his mincing gait in case he heard you and his electronic sensibilities were upset. When he thumped me in the plums during a pre-programmed manoeuvre I forgave him immediately, like you would a dog, because he’s only Asimo and he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t have genitalia himself. And when he walked into a doorpostI was worried that he might have banged his head and hurt himself.

You can see where this is going. While Asimo lures us into a false culture of condescension towards robots, he and all his brothers (they’re called Asimo as well) are developing apace, and we will not detect the point at which they become sentient beings with a free will and an agenda. And then, one day, the doorbell will ring and it’ll be Asimo, and he will have come for you.

And you will know that Honda has finally triumphed because, even if this moment comes in 50 years’ time, Asimo will almost certainly have arrived on a Honda Cub.

 

 

James May, Column, Honda

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