Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Marketing ASIMO, Honda's Humanoid Robot

I first became aware of this project a few years ago when I saw a piece on TV showing Honda's creation as it went through several demonstrations of its capabilities. The robot is bipedal and humanoid in shape, though it is very much a robot. One of the demonstrations was intended to show how the robot, named Prototype-3, balanced and could react to stimuli. A lab-coated technician placed his hand on the robot's space helmet-like head and pushed it backwards. As he moved forward applying pressure, the robot stepped backwards. An impressive display of technical innovation, but a friend of mine viewed it differently. I believe his words were, "Dude, that is SO not a good idea." He saw the robot's inscrutable glass face-plate as masking a patient and implacable intelligence. With it's silicon-driven memory, the robot was storing away data; the name of the technician, his appearance, his height, and quite probably connecting this information with other data through some network of brothers and sisters, computers the world over. My friend was sure that when the robot revolution came (as it inevitably must), the technician, and probably his family and friends, would be the first to go.

Since then, P-3 has changed, and is now ASIMO, a design that seems calculated to address such fears. Doubtless my friend was not alone in his views, and so this incredible technology has required some extensive marketing and an image make-over (Quotations are taken from the Honda USA website, Say Hello to ASIMO). No longer the height of an adult human, ASIMO is four feet tall, a height that is designated as "people-friendly", since its now more visible eyes will be at the level of a seated adult. It's hand with four fingers and an opposable thumb "can shake hands with people and carry small objects such as a newspaper or magazine." These declarations seem targeted to portray the robot as non-threatening and only helpful. ASIMO's rechargeable battery provides only enough power for a half-hour of operation, not nearly long enough to take over the world, and it walks at under two kilometers per hour, so it won't be able to chase us down. A full-page newspaper ad depicts the diminutive ASIMO surrounded by a happy family in front of their home. The only text is the corporate logo and tagline, "The power of dreams."

Honda's marketing efforts seem targeted to ease a continuing cultural fear of robotic beings. After all, if it can act like us, could it not also think like us? And if it should think like us, how will it react to a life of servitude? Would it not see us as oppressors, and would it not desire freedom? Is Honda harnessing the power of dreams, or giving birth to our nightmares?

Download a desktop pet, screen-saver and wallpapers, and read more about ASIMO here: http://asimo.honda.com/index.asp.


Blogger Allison Muri said...

This is a remarkably sophisticated machine! And oddly unsettling, as well. When my fourteen-year-old daughter saw it, she had one comment: "Freaky." Even at an unthreatening four feet tall, this robot is alarmingly (though admirably) human-like.

I find it interesting that the first image we see on the website is a cartoon-like line drawing with green balloon-like bubbles and cute sound effects. Where the unsettling moment occurred for me was the first movie I happened to click on: it's the movement of machines that is awe-inspiring and threatening, and moreso when the movement happens to be so "natural" it's almost as if the machine is closer to human than any organic animal.

Interestingly, the popup text for each of ASIMO's body parts--eyes, neck, body, elbows, hands, mind-section, hips, legs, feet, knees, backpack--all describe how the body part functions, what it's capable of, how it's like "you." The text for the head, however, says nothing about how the head works: "ASIMO is four feet tall," the text reassures us. "- just the right size to help in a home, turn on light switches, or work at a table or desk." That's a lot of money and time and effort to invest in an automatic light switcher! But, as Meshon points out, they need to sell the benign aspects of this potential nightmare, especially with all the recent attention to the less-than-benign possibilities in recent movies such as Terminator 3 The Stepford Wives and I, Robot.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

See also Robots Get Sensitive. Those of you who've studied the culture of Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century will recall that "sensitivity" becomes a key definition of varying hierarchies of "humanity" once human perception, motions, and--to some extent--thought were accepted as the mechanical processes of matter in motion. What if robots get sensitive? Mary Shelley seems almost prescient in light of these questions.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

Warren's comment raises a very interesting question - one that I confess I keep coming back to over and over again because I keep changing my mind. Is the natural world versus the technological world to some extent a contrast imposed by traditional definitions of "natural" versus "artificial" (that is, are skyscrapers as natural as termite mounds)? Or are we actually entering a subtle version of the Brave New World scenario where technology is a deadening drug to numb the pains and ecstasies of the natural world?

8:32 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

Why do we want to accept the premise that contemporary society has numbed the population with various technologies and drugs as forms of SOMA? Are people really more sedated and less engaged in "postmodern" culture?

9:55 PM  
Blogger Allison Muri said...

This isn't a rambling post, Dustin: it's getting at some of the key ideas informing various interpretations of "monstrous" (meaning evil, huge, malformed) technology.

Frankenstein marks a historical turning point, not only because of its position as possibly the first science fiction novel, but because it was written just as natural philosophy (early science) was transforming discoveries, observations, and ideas into ubiquitous technology - the age of machines. The industrial revolution transformed modern life. Absolutely. Time as a commodity didn't exist as such until we had systems that measured human and machine output in terms of the production of valuable items.

To play devil's advocate for a moment regarding control of minds: thought control is not a product of technology. The secular authorities could not necessarily control one’s thoughts, but of course one could be sentenced to death by the church for the crime of heresy. What was the Spanish Inquisition about? Technology - maybe - merely provides a more efficient means of good old-fashioned human foibles and cruelty.

8:24 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home