EVEN from a country that produced Godzilla and Mazinger Z, ASIMO was remarkable. For starters, this character was not fictional.
ASIMO, standing for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, was Honda Motor’s humanoid machine which heralded the car maker’s foray into autonomous mobility technologies. But ASIMO is now being referred to in the past tense because its maker on June 28 said it would stop further developing the robot.
“We will still continue research into humanoid robots, but our future robots may not be named ASIMO,” Honda spokesman Hajime Kaneko was quoted by news agency AFP in a report published on the same day.
AFP said Honda denied “it had dissolved the team working on ASIMO,” although the car maker may likely develop robots intended for specific applications.
“We have obtained lots of technologies while developing ASIMO, and how to utilize them is one issue,” Mr. Kaneko was quoted by AFP.
This, then, spells the end of ASIMO’s three-decade run of humanoid behavior, which could seem simple — if not comically amateurish — at times, but always endearingly cute.
ASIMO can trace its roots to 1986 when Honda said its engineers “set out to create a walking robot.” Early models, simply referred to as the E1, E2 and E3, were nothing but robotic legs that could simulate how people walk. The succeeding E4, E5 and E6 were designed to walk more steadily, as well as climb stairs.
Honda then added a head, body and arms to the robotic legs, and the result was considered the car maker’s first humanoid robot — the P1 of 1993. The P1 was quite burly at six feet, two inches tall and 386 pounds, and so the car maker made sure the succeeding P2 look friendlier. The P2 could walk and climb stairs better than any of its predecessors, too.
By the time the P3 came out in 1997 the robot was no longer imposing, standing at only five feet and two inches, and weighed a mere 287 pounds.
After the P3 came ASIMO — which became even more diminutive (and thus, cuter) at only four feet tall. Upon its debut in 2000 ASIMO could run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, switch directions and climb stairs smoothly, and even reach for and grasp objects. ASIMO could also comprehend and respond to simple voice commands, as well as recognize some faces and map out its surroundings by using cameras as eyes.
In 2003 Honda began bringing ASIMO to schools across Japan as the car maker sought to “inspire” young people into taking science courses. In the next couple of years ASIMO took to the Hollywood red carpet for the premier of Robots: The Movie, and also visited Disneyland in California, where it was welcomed by Mickey Mouse. According to Honda, what allowed the appearances was ASIMO’s capability at that time to better interact with humans — like walk hand in hand with a person. More important, the robot had developed skills with potential work force applications; it could already automatically perform the tasks of a receptionist, information guide or a courier.
At this point ASIMO had gained global popularity — its appearances at the Tokyo Motor Show alone, held every odd-number year, generated much publicity. In 2006 the robot landed an acting role in a TV documentary drama titled Update 2056: The world in 50 years. The three-part series shot in Europe was aired on Discover Channel.
The next year ASIMO was presented at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas where it flaunted new streamlined looks, more fluid movements and the ability to sprint at around 7 kph. It also had several new mobility and artificial intelligence functions that improved its interaction with humans.
ASIMO’s last significant development was in 2011 when it went from being an “automatic machine” to an “autonomous machine.” By this time the robot had learned to decide according to feedback from its surroundings, maintain better balance, and gather information that let it determine its next course of action. It could also listen and understand up to three people talking to it simultaneously.
The following years saw ASIMO playing football with Barack Obama, dancing for Angela Merkel, posing for a selfie with Malcolm Turnbull, appearing in a US talk show where it demonstrated its ability to understand sign language, and touring the world as a technological marvel for which, however, Honda has yet to find a practical application.
Still, you will be missed, ASIMO. — BMA