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How ASIMO Paved The Way For Today’s Autonomous Vehicles

Honda ASIMO, a white humanoid robot, stands before a crowd of children seated in bleachers at the Czech Science Center.

Honda ASIMO seen at the Czech Science Center. Credit: Honda

ASIMO, the world’s first bi-pedal humanoid robot, “lived” just 22 years. But that brief time ushered in an era of robotic acceptance and innovation that has fueled progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and automation of all kinds.

When Honda began researching humanoid robots in 1986, its engineers were interested in creating a walking robot.

The researchers and scientists worked on bipedal robots for 14 years, debuting ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step In Mobility,  in 2000 and iterating new versions over the years. In 2002, a version of ASIMO was appointed as a Science Communicator at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo, called the Miraikan, carrying out 15,466 demonstrations in front of an estimated more than 2 million people.

In 2018, Honda said the company would stop producing updated versions of Asimo so it could focus on applying its technology in more practical ways. And, this March, ASIMO “graduated” from the Miraikan, having not just learned to walk, but to dance, play soccer, climb stairs, understand and respond to commands and avoid obstacles — all while capturing the hearts of millions.

“It’s kind of a vision of the future that has both the social-emotional element and the technology component,” said Heni Ben Amor, assistant professor of robotics at Arizona State University. “I can’t stress enough how important it was for a positive vision of robotics.”

The technology used in the kid-sized humanoid (4-foot 3-inch tall and 119 pounds) from its sensors to its structural design, inspired new developments for autonomous vehicles, personal mobility and robotics of all kinds. He appeared in inspiring commercials, directed an orchestra, and served as a de facto ambassador for Japanese international relations.

“I can’t stress enough how important it was for a positive vision of robotics.”

ASIMO was also an ambassador for automation and technology, said Paul Soucek, a systems sales engineer at the automation machinery manufacturing firm Delta Technology, in Tempe, Arizona.

“The ASIMO period was important in that it was a way for people to see a friendly face of automation,” Soucek said, emphasizing how ASIMO effectively dispelled Hollywood’s prevailing malicious projection of artificial intelligence and automation. “There was a paradigm shift from the scary robots of the past to seeing automation that is designed to supplement and help humans in their everyday life. And we see, in that 20-year period, a boom of things that are more accepted.”

Now, robots are everywhere. They vacuum our floors, tell us how to get somewhere, remember what actor played the lead role in a movie, diagnose diseases, and move the goods we use every day through assembly lines most of us never see. They even move goods from warehouses to stores as autonomous supply chain support vehicles.

While the innovations utilized to create ASIMO were groundbreaking on their own, the technology that equipped the robot with 34 degrees of freedom — allowing it to make human-like movements — also fueled affection among everyone who engaged with it. Ben Amor saw it first-hand at a robotics conference in Japan in 2002.

“The excitement was palpable,” Ben Amor said, noting that about 200,000 people, from kindergarteners to the elderly, had packed into a stadium for a robotics competition featuring Asimo. “It surprised me. At that time, most people were not really into what I was doing. Robotics was a niche topic.”

But ASIMO changed things. Legions of adoring fans, for years to come, would clamor to see the robot, get a photo with it and watch it perform. ASIMO met with world leaders, including President Barack Obama, made fans out of TV hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, and spawned lines of merchandise that even pop stars would envy — keychains, lanyards, plush dolls, figurines and even a full-size hot air balloon. And thanks to ASIMO’s dexterity, the robot could sign “I Love You” to all his fans.

Soucek works in industrial automation, and said ASIMO’s popularity among everyday people translated into the adoption of autonomous and automated technology in manufacturing and related industries. “If people really understood how much automation is already out there, and is behind the scenes improving their lives, they’d be impressed,” Soucek said.

Some think ASIMO’s adorable physique — a tiny astronaut-type body, with a space helmet-style head featuring large, endearing eyes — was what made it so irresistible to the millions who interacted with it.

Others applauded the science behind ASIMO, image processing, voice recognition and artificial intelligence, which has been so fruitful that the robot was retired so engineers could pivot to applying it in self-driving vehicles and physical therapy technologies. For example, ASIMO’s sensors helped it stay upright while walking, and now Honda has introduced a self-balancing motorcycle with similar technology.

ASIMO was conceived both as a way to do pure scientific research on artificial intelligence, robotic movement and language processing and as a possibly commercially viable human-helper. ASIMO was even available for rent in Japan for a period in 2001. Developers imagined he might be able to help people in beds, chairs, or wheelchairs, with simple tasks, but the market at scale didn’t materialize, and ASIMO proved more valuable as an incubator for technologies that would support the core of Honda’s business.

“The excitement was palpable”

For Soucek, ASIMO’s continued iterations and innovations moved automation forward directly, and by inspiring more work in the space, “The cost of it has gone down tremendously,” he said. “It’s a flywheel-type thing. It’s gaining momentum on the outside with acceptance and, on the inside, becoming more affordable.”

ASIMO also drove interest in robotics and autonomous technology for those considering a professional career in the field. Amor, who has a Ph.D in robotics, was inspired by the robot, and today shows his students Asimo videos during lectures. And inside his research lab in Tempe, ASIMO’s influence can be felt — physically.

The robotics professor and his students are developing a robot that can learn to adapt to its physical experiences. It’s starting by learning to hug, and adjusting its style with each embrace. ASIMO was more of a hand-shaker when he met with diplomats and dignitaries, but the robot showed human-machine interactions that were warm, friendly and accessible.

“In a way, ASIMO was a really successful public service announcement, and in addition to that, there was tangible research that pushed the field forward,” Ben Amor said.

He praises ASIMO’s makers for their vision and leadership — to invest in technology that was never meant to be sold, only meant to tell a story. “There’s a sort of cultural-emotional element behind ASIMO,” said Ben Amor. “The way they gave him a name and designed him. It projects certain qualities. An upright boy who looks nice and is ready to help people. That’s part of the story they developed around it.”

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