Honda just announced that it will cease development of Asimo, the super cute humanoid that tours the world in the name of stunt marketing. Asimo was 18 years old. Asimo, once heralded as the future of robotics, was not even old enough to buy a beer. But it was always happy to help sell you a Honda automobile.
Don’t get me wrong: Asimo is awesome. The bubble-headed droid has been around as long as the 21st century, and it always felt like a glimpse of the future, when robot assistants would walk to the kitchen and make us cheeseburgers. Sadly, this is a future that will likely never materialize the way that your young mind may have imagined it at the turn of the century. Because Honda, primarily a car and motorcycle company, was never really interested in making Asimo available to the public. Asimo was always a marketing stunt. Honda’s logo was emblazoned across Asimo’s chest and shoulders, like some something out of a NASCAR race.
This always bugged me, and over time, I came to disdain Honda for letting its badass bipedal robot seem like nothing more than a walking ad. Asimo is an acronym for “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility,” a vague expression of inconclusive innovation if I’ve ever seen one. Standing just over four-feet-tall and weighing in 119 pounds, Asimo is described as “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot.” Honda is the one writing that description, by the way.
While Asimo was, in fact, the first robot to walk on two legs when it was introduced in 2000, not many (if any) of the robot’s technology has made it into the mainstream. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that Asimo technology helped lead to the development of an intelligent, robotic, Honda-branded lawn mower that you can now buy for $2,500. Needless to say, I was hoping for more after 18 years and seven generations of Asimo.
What the public has seen a lot of, however, is Asimo photo ops. Reading through the highlights of Asimo’s biography sometimes feels like wading into a cavern of forgotten dreams. There was the time Asimo opened the New York Stock Exchange in 2002 and the time Asimo walked the red carpet at the premiere of the movie Robots, starring Amanda Bynes. That same year, Asimo made appearances at Disneyland. Three years later, Asimo conducted the Detroit Symphany Orchestra in a stunning rendition of “The Impossible Dream,” a song about the lofty ambitions of a madman who fights windmills. Fast forward a few years, when we saw Asimo play a game of soccer with President Obama. This global celebrity—Asimo, not Obama—later served as the inspiration for the movie Robot & Frank, which was excellent in my opinion.
None of this is to say that Asimo is a bad robot. It’s actually very impressive to see it walk around and talk and conduct orchestras and stuff! I also don’t want to undersell the value of having an example of modern robotics that people can relate to and feel connected to. Asimo exudes this fun, little sibling feeling that many people love. I’ll also commend Honda for sending Asimo on many, many educational tours to get young people excited about robotics, while meeting heads of state and even royalty along the way. I’m just not so sure the company needed to paint its logo all over the damn thing.
What really gets me steamed up, though, is that Honda didn’t do more with Asimo. It would be truly awesome if Asimo could drive a car for you or if Asimo robots were a common fixture in retirement homes and children’s hospitals. It would be amazing if Honda made a consumer version of Asimo, perhaps a cyborg butler or just a little buddy like Jibo, the world’s first family robot. The research gleaned from Asimo’s development has undoubtedly helped Honda develop other projects, and the company has advertised a few of them, like the Uni-Cub personal mobility device and the Walking Assist exoskeleton. Honda also showed off a lineup of new robots at CES this year, though all of these products still appear to be in the concept or prototype phase.
Asimo, in my mind, departs this world as the embodiment of Honda’s great bionic grift. It joins other camera-friendly robots like Boston Dynamics’ Atlas and Sophia, the artificially intelligent automaton that’s actually pretty dumb. Each represents its own version of progress in the creation of a true humanoid robot, yet from the average person’s point of view, all of them are essentially only good for fun YouTube videos and viral internet blogs.
If you remember Asimo as anything, you’ll remember it as Honda’s robot that does neat stuff. And also, would you like to buy a Civic?