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 Warren said...

Even though there is the possibility that Honda is marketing our worst nightmare while at the same trying to "ease a continuing cultural fear of robotic beings" as Meshon explained, I do not believe that this fear will overtake the seemingly more important human need for efficiency and automation in our present culture. There is proof of this in many of our daily actions, such as the exploit and manipulation of the natural environment. Scientists concerned about future generations have warned the general public continually that drastic change needs to occur in order to preserve the natural environment. Yes, it is possible that one day human beings might be able to live without trees and lakes through amazing advances in technology, but why reinvent the wheel? We already have some place to live, why exploit it in order to come up with another place in which our quality of life — without the natural environment — would surely be depleted.

The same can be said for ASIMO; we already have an arm and hand that is quite capable of reaching for the light-switch, so why reinvent the wheel? This need for automation is illustrated quite clearly in Brave New World. Why be bothered with the worries of human emotion and its consequences, when a drug can be taken to, in baby terms, “make everything all better” and in turn ensure the stability of the new world? After all, without proper control of this stability, the inhabitants of the new world would be left to wallow in all kinds of unhealthy sentiments which might lead to some kind of intellectual uprising.

So to get back to what Meshon and Allison said about the “need to sell the benign aspects of this potential nightmare” in order to sell it to the public in light of the recent attention brought to the possible threat, the West has demonstrated clearly that they would rather drive to the store then walk. I don’t believe Honda will have any problem convincing the general public that ASIMO is friendly just like them and would also prefer to drive to the local mini-mart.

2:57 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 Dustin said...

I think that to a degree we are. I don't think that something like ASIMO is secretly categorizing and comprehending all kinds of information that it shouldn't be in order to overthrow its human masters in some kind of Terminator-like scenario.

However, WHY would we need something like this? Technology is a great thing (without modern medicine, I probably wouldn't be alive), but too much of it is based on convenience rather than nessecity. Tons and tons of capitalist projects, like this robot for example, are based solely on making a profit with something "cutting-edge" without any improvement to society; or indeed in some cases detriment to society. Maybe I'm literally off in left field, but I read a book a couple years ago that provided a compelling arguement for a society-wide assessment of all new technology before it is introduced. Of course, most people likely don't care, education isn't widespread enough and all of that, but why is it that huge companies with no accountability are allowed to release basically anything that isn't immediately lethal into the wide market? I'm not trying to imply that people can't think for themselves or take care of themselves, but I'm pretty sure that the lifestyle - dependant upon lots of technologies introduced for profit and little other reason - of people in American society is the cause for all sorts of social problems. Common statistics like 1 in 3 Americans is obese as well as perhaps subtler things like all the psychological problems that people are suffering from these days, I think can be traced back to a lifestyle of "convenience" which in turn is the result of a profit-driven mindset and the introduction of new technologies without social accountability. I think ASIMO may be just one more of these: sure it might be more convenient to have it than not, but then again it's more convenient for to drive down the block rather than walk, microwave rather than cook your food, and indeed take SOMA rather than face reality.

7:40 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 Dustin said...

Well, in the middle ages, popular opinion wasn't really an issue as the rulers of the world could do basically whatever they wanted and back it up with force. However, in capitalism/democracy, public opinion is a highly valuable commodity, whether it is for getting elected or selling a product. I really do think that there are forms of social control out there that make what the church had during the middle ages look relatively tame. Certainly education is far more widespread than it was in the past, but the direction society is taking seems to indicate that people's views can be shaped, and their minds controlled to some degree. This is quite different from the past, where a bunch of peasants may have had to do what their rulers wanted, but they didn't have to BELIEVE in it. This, I think, is why the American Empire has an efficiency edge over previous empires: in addition to having the world's most powerful military, it exports culture to a degree previously unheard of, it "Ameicanizes" other people so that they feel no need to resist or challenge what's going on. It's like in Brave New World where Mustapha tells the Savage that they have such an efficient grip on society that there's no need to use force, and anyone who happens to disagree with what's going on (a minute social error) can just go somewhere else.

Doesn't the endless barage of brainless television shows and such constitute a way for the viewers to tune out of reality, but in a way that allows others to manipulate their minds?

The idea of convenience as saving time hinges on the idea of time as a precious commodity, itself a feature of modern society exclusively. Alarm clocks, watches, work shifts and breaks, are all post-industrial revolution. There is plenty of time to do all sorts of things, saving the 2 seconds you save by having a robot flip your light switch for you so you can have 2 more seconds of leisure or work (thus 2 second's more wages) I think relies on a rather crazy worldview that implies everything should be in fast-forward so people can themselves become ultra-productive machines.

what a rambling, crappy post. Ah well.

1:07 PM  
Blogger bumblepanda said...

to add to dustin's comment on time being a precious commodity... i doubt that in the middle ages the populace was as riddled with depression and anxiety disorders- are these a manifestation of what free-time does to human beings, perhaps we are not meant to think so much... so really what has all this "free-time" done for us? Lets overthrow the machines... PS: i am glad to see someone else self-defaming at the end of their posts... evidenc that that the students of 486 are still human

3:17 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  
Blogger Dustin said...

I couldn't agree more: people have been evil viscous bastards throughout history, it's just that technology has given them new means for their ends.

Though technology isn't as much of an issue in 1984, I think it's intensely insightful how Orwell says that the Party seeks power not as the means to some end, but entirely for its own sake. Maybe it is rooted in human beings to want to control things at all costs, even if they have to kill and main in order to do it. Or, maybe people just like being cruel and nasty.

In any case, I think that the most powerful elite in the world have always controlled things, be it the church in the middle ages or corporations now. What I really like are those periods like the French Revolution where people get fed up with it and knock a few of them off in return. Oops, there's me going marxist again. Of course though, I also think that any movement claiming that it promotes "free thought" is a paradox, as independant thought wouldn't be independant if it were part of a movement, complete with slogans and its very own forms of mind control, would it.

Who could deny that the modern media is a much more efficient form of control than any that has existed before. Sure the church could censor your work and execute you, making it as if you and your ideas never existed, but I really do think modern culture is efficient at producing certain types of people that it requires.

The problem I find with these posts, is that it seems like I'm trying to make a coherent point, but then when I reread it it just sounds like a giant ramble, but then I'm too lazy to revise it so I just post it anyway.

And don't worry, we're all human here (as I flex my mechanical hand and fire up the old man-machine...)

9:18 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home