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Asimo's AI disappoints in latest performance as it confuses smartphones for hands

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Asimo hang loose
Asimo hang loose

Honda's adorable Asimo humanoid robot stumbled this week at the worst possible time. Asimo was demonstrating some of its new abilities in front of a set of reporters gathered at Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (known as Miraikan) when things didn't go as planned. During the performance, Asimo stopped when audience members raised their smartphones to take a picture — confusing the action for bystanders raising their hands to ask a question. The Associated Press reports the robot then froze, repeating "Who wants to ask Asimo a question?"

Even if the demonstration had gone as planned, it would have been underwhelming. Asimo can only sense what humans around it are doing and then perform actions on its own. With this week's performance, Asimo planned to use wirelessly-connected sensors on the museum's ceiling to identify a crowd, and then pick out who was the first to raise their hand to ask a question. This is where it gets disappointing: since Asimo doesn't have any voice recognition, the audience member only gets to choose one of four questions (randomly selected from a total of about a hundred) on a touchscreen to receive a pre-recorded response from the robot.

"Who wants to ask Asimo a question?"

The functionality is part of a suite of features introduced with the refreshed 2011 version of Asimo, the latest version of the robot first revealed in 2000. Honda called the new Asimo an "autonomous machine," and highlighted its ability to sense where people were walking and distinguish between different faces and voices.

This week's performance was an updated version of typical routine Asimo delivers for museum visitors daily, and it's one of many that will run at the museum through early August with the intention to "verify the value of Asimo as a robot" and provide feedback to research and development. It's clear that the artificial intelligence has some way to go, but Asimo's most impressive achievements have always been of the physical variety — so long as you forget that unfortunate tumble down a set of stairs.