Artificial Intelligence, Asimo, Computer Science, Edinburgh International Science Festival, Edinburgh University, Honda, McEwan Hall, Opinion, Pollock Halls, Robot, Robots, Science, Science Fiction, Technological Determinism, Technology, work
With queues running around Bristo Square and the University of Edinburgh’s seat of pageantry, the McEwan Hall, booked for the weekend, Honda’s humanoid robot, Asimo is in town, and one imagines that even Barack Obama would find himself overshadowed if he turned up in Edinburgh today. It may seem disappointing that Asimo indulges in this celebrity and sensationalism – perhaps one wishes for a more serious, intellectual robot – but Asimo is impeccably well-behaved for a modern celebrity, and it transpires that he is also pretty good at working a crowd.
Asimo is launching (and pretty much headlining) the Edinburgh International Science Festival. He is undertaking ten public appearances in the McEwan Hall over the weekend. I attended this morning’s sold-out 11.30am show, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, drew a lot of children. This raised some difficulties for the comperes Fran Robinson and the Edinburgh University Professor of Robotics Sethu Vijayakumar, whose briskly-choreographed but rather garbled introduction to robotics strived to both entertain and inform the audience. When Asimo finally appeared, there was crashing applause and crowds of children congregated at the foot of the stage to gawp at him. One could not fail to be struck by the contrast between Asimo’s shiny, space-boy futurism and old-world decadence and grandeur of the McEwan Hall’s interior.
The introductory video dwelled largely on Asimo’s mobility. It seems that in the act of taking a step, the human structure falls forwards very slightly, and the inability to replicate this baggy movement in robots had, until very recently, inhibited their development. Previous models had lurched painfully down laboratory walkways (unlike with Asimo, Honda had not cared to print its logo on them). Recent breakthroughs by Honda engineers have emancipated the humanoid robot, however, and Asimo is impressively steady on his feet. Yet his way of walking has something of an eerie quality to it. He walks very stealthily, as if creeping up behind somebody.
The presentation’s concern with mobility was a little disappointing because one wished to learn a bit more about the workings and capacity of Asimo’s brain. One assumes that Asimo is just a computer with arms and legs (can one access email on him and play clips from Youtube?), but Robinson and Vijayakumar only alluded vaguely to “programming” and remote controls, doubtlessly to maintain an impression amongst the children that he was a living, thinking creature.
Asimo spoke with a boyish American accent – the same inappropriately-American voice with which Tintin appeared on English television. Asimo can converse in various tongues, and one wonders why the people at Honda could not have programmed-in a Scots accent (“yeh wannae me tae kick this fucking football, pal?”). Perhaps they believe that an American accent sounds more futuristic. Fran Robinson noted how curious it was that we spoke of this robot as if he had a gender, when like a fridge or a laptop Asimo is entirely androgynous. Asimo walked up a flight of stairs, fetched some drinks, kicked a football, performed a creepy little run, and then, amazingly, danced. One could have watched him all day, but the show was quickly concluded and we were all herded out.
At a time when the motor industry is taking quite a beating, the Japanese car giant Honda has distinguished itself by investing liberally in various technologies, rather than merely churning out lines of unwanted cars. It is unclear why Honda desires to produce a humanoid robot, and perhaps Asimo’s true and only purpose is to serve as an ambassador for Honda’s technology. He is not yet bright enough to chauffeur one of Honda’s products, but he could certainly carry the suitcases, pack and empty the boot, and operate the petrol pump.
Honda tactfully suggest that Asimo may have a future role in assisting the visually impaired, although he still rather lacks the warmth and personality of a guide dog. Instead, the strides in research and development which have delivered Asimo may recall the old dark dreams – fears which we may have assumed were obsolete – of whole swathes of human labour being forever decommissioned.
In my present workplace at the Pollock Halls restaurant, Asimo could probably perform eight of the ten or so jobs which we carry out. He could man the door, serve food, operate most of the dishwash, and clean tables. Only the “runaround” (rapidly stocking foodstuffs and crockery) and working the industrial dishwasher would be too much for him. Asimo presently costs just under a million pounds, but it is inevitable that in my lifetime this sort of robot will become increasingly affordable as a substitute for human labour. Tychy is very much a technological determinist, and we can only anticipate the innovations and implications which are creeping up behind us, in that eerily stealthy manner of Asimo himself.
[Tychy previously satirised the popularity of robotic executive toys here.]