Monday, July 28, 2003

Saying Hello to ASIMO

I went to Honda's demonstration of ASIMO, a humanoid, bipedal robot on Saturday. I thought I'd share my impressions.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it's amazing. Seeing it in person, walking in a very human-like fashion, is almost a little eerie (and partially because it isn't walking exactly like a human). In a real sense, it's the most humanoid machine that's ever been built. It can do all sorts of things - fluidly climb stairs up and down; easily walk in a circle; stand on one leg. Honda's engineers did a heroic job and have made a real breakthrough. My impression is that it's working a little bit like Dean Kamen's Segway: constantly adjusting balance forward and backward, and with 46 degrees of freedom and lots of sensors in the joints, it's constantly optimizing its stance and balance, even as it moves through a maneuver.

With that out of the way, I think Honda, and its self-styled "ASIMO North American Education Tour" have done an enormous disservice to the field of robotics and to the people to whom it is presenting. While the show is over-produced (lots of flashing lights, driving music, and an over-the-top host), I expect that much from a self-promoting corporation. However, they portrayed ASIMO as a fully-aware, conversational, social agent capable of sensing what humans around it were doing and responding appropriately. It was only marginally less capable than C-3PO. And it was (almost) as much a Hollywood trick as sticking Anthony Daniels inside a suit. ASIMO was run by remote control by human operators standing (and I'm not making this up) behind a curtain. (It's unclear whether they appreciated the Wizard of Oz-flavored irony.) The host went out of her way -- far out of her way -- to treat ASIMO as a social agent, not only conversing with it, but during a section when a movie was showing, leaning down and pantomiming whispering to it, pointing out things in the movie. At the very end, there was a blink-and-you-miss-it acknowledgement of the "computer operators," but of course they were never shown, and it was not explained what they had been doing. It was all a lie.

I am convinced that the audience walked out of that room with a less-accurate and worse-informed sense of the state of the art of robots than they had walking in, and for something calling itself an Educational Tour, in a sort of Orwellian Education-is-Ignorance fashion, I think that it was atrocious. While perhaps the audience didn't care, I also think it was a great disservice and showed great disrespect to the work of Rodney Brooks and Cynthia Breazeal, who really are trying to solve the difficult questions of making a robot interact in a social fashion with humans.

There were plenty of other things about the show that bothered me -- not acknowledging the existence of Isaac Asimov, for example, or insisting that a lot of "science" went into building ASIMO and not mentioning "technology," and flubbing the basic question of "Why build a bipedal robot?" -- but these things could be forgiven, or dismissed as mistakes. What isn't so easy to forgive is that Honda is consciously and intentionally perpetuating a false impression of their technology, one that approaches Wally's-Head-in-a-Box levels of demo fraud. And it's sad, because the technology really is such a breakthrough, and so impressive, and so important for the future, that they didn't need to cloak it in a lie.