Here's a press release we recently received from Honda: Honda Motor Co.'s remarkable robot Asimo will conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at a special performance for young people on May 13 that will feature superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Asimo will open the evening by conducting the orchestra in a performance of the song, "The Impossible Dream." (Editor's note: Impossible Dream, like Andy Williams' rendition of Moon River, are both much-loved by the Japanese public, apparently fraught with all sorts of deep meanings which a drunk Japanese recognizes more easily than his or her drunken American friends. It's not unusual to hear either song being sung, always loudly and usually badly, on Japan's late-night streets and in restaurants, and, of course, in the estimated 50 million karaoke bars throughout the country).
The 4-foot robot, able to speak English and Japanese, is the latest generation in a line of Asimo robots developed in 2000 by the Japanese automaker.
Honda has teamed up with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to offer music lessons to students in Detroit and has provided more than $1 million to create The Power of Dreams Music Education Fund.
As part of the program, Paris-born cellist Yo-Yo Ma will teach a master class on May 14 for a group of students selected from the Detroit School of Arts. (Photo --- Guest-starring in a corporate video seen at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, Asimo demonstrates features of the company's "FCX Clarity" hydrogen fuel cell family sedan).
"Honda hopes Asimo's appearance will draw attention to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's nationally acclaimed youth music programs, and particularly Detroit Symphony Orchestra's effort to encourage and support involvement of children in Detroit," Honda said in a statement.
Asimo, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, made his first appearance in the United States on Feb. 14, 2007, when he rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. (End of Honda press release).
Asimo is conducting ... in Detroit?! Boy, those folks at Honda really know how to rub it in, don't they? Other recent Asimo happenings:
"Honda demonstrated its unique robot, ASIMO, at the Kennedy Center JAPAN! culture + hyperculture festival in Washington D.C. from Thursday, February 7 - Sunday, February 17, 2008.
The robot performed live (?) 15-minute demonstrations several times daily throughout the festival. Visitors will experience the most sophisticated robotics technology and see how robots like ASIMO will someday assist people. The free demonstrations will be held in the Nations Gallery at the Kennedy Center."
"Honda Motor Co., Ltd. has further advanced intelligence technologies enabling its advanced humanoid robot ASIMO to act autonomously and perform uninterrupted service to office guests. (Photo Below --- If Asimo replaces hostesses at Japanese companies, what will the women working there do? Gosh, maybe they'll let them have real jobs!)
Honda developed an intelligence technology that enhances smooth movement by enabling ASIMO to choose between stepping back and yielding the right-of-way or continuing to walk based on the predicted movement of oncoming people ("Out of the way, Asimo!", "Yes, master," or, "Hai, sensei." At least we hope that's what happens ... Just imagine the other possibilities). Honda also developed a new intelligence technology related to ASIMO's ability to perform tasks such as carrying a tray and pushing a cart. In addition, a newly added function enables ASIMO to automatically charge its battery when its remaining battery level falls below a certain level. Furthermore, a new comprehensive system was developed so that multiple ASIMOs can share tasks by adjusting to the situation and work together in coordination to provide uninterrupted service. For example, if one ASIMO is idled while recharging, other ASIMO robots will step in and perform assigned tasks.
Honda will begin test operations of two ASIMOs equipped with these newly developed technologies December 12, at the second floor lobby of Honda's Aoyama, Japan headquarters."
If human beings suddenly start flying out the windows of the upper stories of Honda's HQ, then we'll know ASIMO may have a problem or two ... But plugging-itself in when the battery gets low? Working in conjunction with other robots? Serious stuff, my friends (as John McCain might say, just like the used car salesman he is).
Hey, Uncle Car Nut, tell us about the time you first saw Honda's robot, Asimo, climb down a flight of stairs! (Photo --- Asimo at rest. It shrinks quite a bit when "off;" gaining height as it powers-up. Latest-generation Asimo is now four feet tall).
Well, sure kids ... Now gather round! And in spite of Honda's efforts (and who can blame them) to have everyone anthropomorphize Asimo, like a favorite, gentle pet, let's keep in mind that "he" ( or "she" --- and who decides? Mrs. Asimo?) is quite literally a bucket of bolts. Very smart bolts and all the rest, but bolts nonetheless.
It was a cool, wet afternoon at Honda's Research and Development Center on Tochigi, Japan, about 50 miles north of Tokyo, in the lowlands surrounding the mountains where, if you cared to drive up, one would find the Twin Ring Motegi Race Track. Honda, at the time, had some 5,000 engineers working at the Tochigi R&D Center, none of them, they told us, over 40 years old. I bet a like-number of them were women, too, but I digress, kids ... You have to remember, "When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do" ...
Click below to read more about Honda's car-building, orchestra-conducting, and potentially union-bashing robot, Asimo!
(Photo --- Newest Asimo reacts when battery level drops below a certain point; at that time, Asimo "looks for" and "recognizes" the nearest available recharging station, then "backs-in" for a volt-sandwich. Wonder if Asimo has one of those irritating "beep-beep" signals which every other car and truck in Japan uses when backing?).
Our group was made-up of about 10 American journalists, and our Japanese hosts were quite excited when they took us to what looked like an unassuming warehouse, placed us in a room with a staircase at one end, a small room which looked like what you'd expect to find in a storage warehouse, with no special amenities. We stood around, literally --- There were no chairs. In our host group was the man who had served as the president of Honda R&D, Honda F1 (in 1988 Honda/McLaren domination was unprecedented with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost winning 15 of the 16 races that year) and the entire Honda Motor Corporation, Nobuhiko Kawamoto.
We were all speaking as a group, about nothing in particular, when our attention was directed to the staircase. A (false) door opened at the top of the stairs, and I noticed the all-wood, unpainted staircase itself was probably made for whatever demonstration we were about to witness or some type of testing (this was the Honda R&D center, after all). (Photo --- Asimo apparently training for next season's "Dancing With the Stars").
Then, we all saw what appeared to be one large, mechanical foot come through the doorway, then another, and then we saw Asimo standing in "his" full five-foot height (though the above release says Asimo has apparently "shrunk" to four feet since I first saw "him"). Swinging his arms slightly and carefully (it seemed) lifting and lowering its legs, Asimo walked slowly down the stairs ... on its own, with no apparent outside assistance from any of the many gathered engineers, who were all now smiling and clapping ... about as excited as you'd ever expect any Japan engineer to be, especially in front of guests from overseas. They told us that we had just seen Asimo walk down stairs, for the first time, ever, for any human-appearing robot in history. We had no reason to argue. History made, in front of our eyes.
Asimo did not speak, not even a quick, Japanese, "Danger Will Robinson!"
Now I also understood why they had asked us, "No photos, please," before the demonstration. Asimo wouldn't have looked very futuristic sprawled at the bottom of a phony staircase in a Japanese warehouse's storage room, especially with with the words "Asimo" and "Honda" emblazoned on its front and back.
Following this rather remarkable demonstration, I had a few minutes over lunch with Mr. Kawamoto, and asked him why Honda was obviously spending a lot of time, money, brain-power and engineering energy on creating a robot. (Photo --- "Originally opened in June 2005 as part of Anaheim Disneyland's 50th Anniversary celebration, the Honda ASIMO Theatre gives visitors a glimpse into a not-too-distant future when humanoid robots, like ASIMO, will assist humans in their homes," says a Honda press release. It continues: "Park guests see ASIMO operate in a modern home environment by using all of its unique technological capabilities, such as running, walking forward and backward, climbing and descending a flight of stairs and taking direction from a person." Wow, that 'walking downstairs' thing must be a bigger deal than I thought when I saw it a decade ago! Also, is Asimo now doing an "Iron Man" impression by feigning a "take-off"?).
"Japanese young people don't want to do jobs like working on an automotive assembly line," Kawamoto said in near-perfect English. "So for that reason, we feel we must make mechanical substitutes which can safely and carefully manufacture cars, trucks, motorcycles, outboard engines, even lawn mowers ... all the motorized products which Honda now makes, and those which will come in the future."
That same day, about a decade ago, I also drove one of the Honda prototype gas/electric hybrid cars, the first-ever demonstrated to any journalist visitors. We were not allowed to stop on the test track to open the hood, and by "we", I mean me, the driver, and "him," the passenger. No, it wasn't Asimo, but a non-English speaking (so they told us) Japanese engineer. Only after we drove the car and gave our "driving impressions," which were copied down and recorded by several of the many engineers (remember, this place had 5,000 of them), did they tell us ... and show us ... what was in the engine bay. Our input was worth a lot more than the lunch they laid-out for us that day ("American-style BBQ;" that, I can remember easily).
Our small group also visited Honda's Twin Ring Motegi race track on that trip (they bought the land, designed the track, built it and own it), where we drove through several areas of Honda's safety test course and spent time talking with Honda racer Alex Zanardi. To add to the fun that day, Honda rolled out its Side-by-Side, a Formula-One-style car with a 750-cc motorcycle engine in a slim racing body. After that short trip, kids, seeing Asimo walk down stairs and driving the first gas/electric hybrids from a major car-maker, it was pretty easy to believe that Honda was, if not the top engineering company in the world, at least in the top five. (Photo --- GM's Equinox fuel cell vehicle; 100 of them are being made ready for short-term testing in the USA, while Honda will lease 60 of their FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicles to Southern California residents for one-year terms).
Today, with Honda bringing to market for public, real-world testing a hydrogen-fueled fuel cell family sedan, with a system which turns hydrogen into electricity to provide energy for the wheels at all four corners of the car, called "FCX Clarity," their top engineering reputation remains.
With the worldwide technology race now in constant motion, General Motors has a great opportunity to leap forward to "Best in Class" if they can bring to market, as GM President Rick Wagoner promised again just this week, their remarkable Chevrolet Volt ... and he promised they'll do it by 2010, too. GM also is putting 100 of their Equinox fuel cell small SUVs into the hands of American drivers, too, but it appears only for short-term test sessions; Honda says they will be leasing 60 "FCX Clarity" fuel cell cars to Southern California families and lease them for a year at a time. GM's Equinox is the latest version of their Sequel fuel cell vehicle, all based on their AUTOnomy "fuel cell skateboard platform" which also served as the underpinnings of GM's Hy-wire concept show-stopper. In the meantime, Honda seems to be in the technology lead, at least publicly.
(Photo --- Nobuhiko Kawamoto, who served as president of Honda Motor Corporation, Honda R&D and Honda F1).