It’s hard to imagine that once prospects of a future with computers was difficult to imagine. In the 1980s home computers were finally beginning to change the world. But within 20 years there would rarely be a home seen without a PC to go along with it. Soon Laptops would replace desktop computers as the most popular tool for processing information. And as technology got smaller and more complex so did robotics. But it seems we are now at the cusp of another exciting revolution with the development of Honda’s Asimo.
Asimo as a design model has been around for some time. You may have already seen images of the astronaut-like robot walking around during technology expos. But with new developments both in mobility and information processing, Asimo is becoming more capable with each passing month. And the cost of developing the robot has gone down significantly since it was first developed.
At the moment 100 Asimo models have been built and distributed both for scientific research and for personal home use. What once cost tens to hundreds of millions to develop has finally broken below the one million dollar mark. And the device can perform in ways far beyond the dreams of the original developers. No longer is the device bound to lurch awkwardly on even controlled ground, Asimo can not only walk but run. And it can climb stairs, open doors, and interact with household appliances.
But one of the hurdles we will have to overcome as a society and a species before we can integrate robotics into our society fully is a better understanding of exactly what a robot is and what it is not. It is not, by our definition of the word alive. This is not necessarily to say, however, that it is impossible to at some point in the future develop a robot capable of fitting into this definition. And yet despite the fact that robots are not alive, several subtle movements have been added into Asimo’s mannerisms that seem to have been put there purposefully to overcome the next hurdle – the emotional one. Robots as an idea seem safe enough, but to think about a cold calculating heartless being walking around in your house chopping vegetables, carrying boiling water, and sitting in rest mode next to you on the couch is something that many people will find it difficult to deal with on an emotional level. So robots like Asimo attempt to create an illusion that is not necessarily human, but something else that is almost a cartoon-like exaggerated version of human mannerisms (very similar to how computer animated characters do in film and games.)
So will the Asimo and future generations of robots integrate well into homes as they become more accessible to the general populace? Or will there be a marked rebellion against machines working autonomously without the direct manual supervision of human hands? One thing is for certain: just as computers were used in ways that most revealed humanity’s true nature robots will tell us more about ourselves than we could ever imagine.