Following two busy teaching terms I’m finally able to turn back to Robot Futures, and into my inbox comes an uncommonly candid account of the most recent demonstration of one of the longest-lived humanoid robots, Honda’s Asimo. Titled ‘Honda robot has trouble talking the talk’ (Yuri Kageyama, 04 July 2013, Independent.ie), the article describes Asimo’s debut as a proposed museum tour guide at the Miraikan science museum. An innumerable stream of media reports on Asimo over the years since the robot’s first version was announced in 2000 have focused on the robot’s ability to walk the walk of a humanoid biped, although troubles have occurred there as well. But to join the ranks of imagined robot service providers requires that Asimo add to its navigational abilities some interactional ones. And it’s here that this latest trouble arises, as Kageyama reports that “The bubble-headed Asimo machine had problems telling the difference between people raising their hands to ask questions and those aiming their smartphones to take photos. It froze mid-action and repeated a programmed remark, ‘Who wants to ask Asimo a question?’.” The same technological revolution that has provided the context for Asimo’s humanoid promise, in other words, has configured a human whose raised hand comprises a noisy signal, ambiguously identifying her as interlocutor or spectator.
At least some publics, it seems, are growing weary of the perpetually imminent arrival of useful humanoids. Kageyama cites complaints that Honda has yet to develop any practical applications for Asimo. While one of the uses promised for Asimo and his service robot kin has been to take up tasks too dangerous for human bodies, it seems that robot bodies may be just as fragile: Kageyama reports that “Asimo was too sensitive to go into irradiated areas after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.” As a less demanding alternative, Asimo’s engineering overseer, Satoshi Shigemi, suggests that a “possible future use for Asimo would be to help people buy tickets from vending machines at train stations,” speeding up the process for humans unfamiliar with those devices. I can’t help noting the similarity of this projected robot future, however, to the expert system photocopier coach that was the first object of my own research in the mid-1980s. As the ethnomethodologists have taught us, instructions presuppose the competencies that are required for their successful execution. This poses if not an infinite, at least a pragmatically indefinite, regress for artificial intelligences and interactive machines.
Asimo’s troubles take on far more serious proportions in the case of robotic weapon systems, required to make critical and exceedingly more challenging discriminations among the humans who face them. For a recent reflection on this worrying robot future, see Sharkey and Suchman ‘Wishful Mnemonics and Autonomous Killing Machines’ in the most recent issue of AISBQ Quarterly, the Newsletter of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour, No. 136, May 2013.