It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: one of Japan’s top science museums has borrowed Honda Motor’s iconic spaceman robot, Asimo, as a guide. But the confused bot is struggling to distinguish between people raising their hands to ask a question and just taking photos.
In a demonstration to reporters at the Miraikan Museum, Asimo froze mid-command and repeated questions from customers they fed into a touch-panel device. Museum officials admitted that the remote-controlled machine is unable to respond to verbal queries, or tell the difference between a child and an adult.
It seemed like a poor show for what is often billed as the planet’s most advanced humanoid robot. “Right now, it can recognise a child waving to it, but it’s not able to comprehend the meaning of the waving,” Honda’s head of robotics, Satoshi Shigemi, told the AP news agency.
Since its debut 13 years ago, Asimo has become Japan’s best-known robot, opening the New York Stock Exchange and playing to audiences all over the world, including at the British Science Museum. It once met a startled Prince Charles during a visit to the Miraikan. In 2011, it served tea to Stephen Fry and danced with Jo Brand during an episode of the BBC’s QI. But faced with a real job, Asimo proved sadly inadequate. Honda considered sending the bubble-headed biped to help with the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which left behind radiation too deadly for humans. But engineers decided it was too sensitive for on-site work and could stumble over rubble scattered by a series of hydrogen explosions.
Honda has been under fire for spending money on what some called an overpriced toy (a company spokesman previously declined to specify the cost of assembly, but told Forbes it was less than $1m (£655,000) per robot). In response to the criticisms, Honda said this month it has created a new Asimo prototype to survey the plant’s crippled No 2 reactor, using its ability to map an environment.
The robot was sent to check on radiation and conditions inside the Reactor 2 building. The prototype, however, looked nothing like the talking humanoid that entertained Prince Charles and Mr Fry.
Under carefully choreographed conditions, Asimo can negotiate steps, play football, pour itself a drink, respond to about 100 questions and even play the violin. But flesh-and-blood museum guides have little to fear yet. Honda said one of its possible future applications is helping people to buy tickets from vending machines – in other words, a machine helping a machine. The whole point of the robot is to assist humans,” says Mr Shigemi. Aren’t they supposed to make life easier?