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(John Lund/(c) John Lund/Getty Images)
(John Lund/(c) John Lund/Getty Images)

Globe Essay

One robot, one vote? Add to ...

ASIMO, Honda's humanoid robotic superstar, has no eyes. Indeed, he has no face. Instead, he views the world through a black, blank monitor screen.

Why this restraint by his creator? One of the scientists who designed him confessed that, with a humanoid face, ASIMO looked too human: hence, menacing.

With a computer head atop a four-foot, 114-pound plastic body, he looked charming, endearing and cute - hence, safe. Other creators, though, will not hesitate. Humanoid robots with soft, textured faces, indistinguishable from human faces (though perhaps less flawed) already exist - although only in the lab, so far.

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ASIMO has introduced millions of people to humanoid robots in the last eight years - in his early cross-country tours (2002-2005), in his regular public appearances (Disneyland) and in his special performances (as a conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and as a guest at Windsor Castle).

There are, after all, 100 of him. He walks, runs, climbs stairs, shakes hands, faces people when they speak to him, recognizes people he has met before, responds to his name - and expresses assent or dissent either with a nod of his head or with a verbal response.

ASIMO's most brilliant performance yet, however, may well be his starring role in Honda Canada's ASIMO's Journey, a television and movie-theatre commercial (from the Montreal- and Toronto-based Bos ad agency) in which the charismatic robot travels across the country to the inspired lyrics of Getting to Know You (and "all about you"), the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit from The King and I.

In the first frames, a wistful ASIMO and his human mother look out the front window of a modest house and watch children at play; in the next frames, the children call on him to join them. In other sequences, ASIMO experiences a cookout on the beach, watches a farmer tap maple trees in a sugar bush, visits an Alberta ranch (where horses run free) and has his photograph taken, as any tourist might, beside a totem pole on the West Coast.

Oddly, although ASIMO is explicitly sexless, people confidently refer to him as male. (What was it about cars and ships, earlier species of machinery, that induced people to refer to them as if they were female?) ASIMO's name is gender-neutral, derived from Advanced Step in Innovative MObility (and not, as some people assume, from the name of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov).

Sony's AIBO, a robotic dog, acquired his name in a similar manner (Artificial Intelligence roBOt). Introduced in 1999, AIBO struck humans as charming, endearing and cute as well. Sony, alas, retired him in 2006; he lives now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Isaac Asimov produced history's first draft of robotic legislation when he wrote his Three Laws of Robotics in 1942:

The First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.

The Second Law: A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except when such orders would conflict with the First Law.

The Third Law: A robot must protect his own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First Law or the Second Law.

But Mr. Asimov's three basic laws will not be adequate - as, earlier, Moses's 10 moral laws were not. Adam necessitates Eve. ASIMO necessitates ASIMA. You can't have one without the other - not, at any rate, without the risk of going to court. In what ways, aside from mere physical form, will ASIMA differ from ASIMO? Presumably, people will recognize the physical distinctions.

But what other attributes will she possess? Will different skills determine her gender? Will different IQ? Will different personality? This question is more urgent than you might think. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have demonstrated a robot that can fold towels. Precisely. Will this robot be HIS or HERS?

More importantly, what happens when a male human being finds a female humanoid robot exceptionally charming, endearing and cute? Or, similarly, what happens when a female human being finds a male humanoid robot exceedingly charming, endearing and cute? Will we have grounds for alienation of affection? For divorce? Writing in the journal Computer Law and Security Review, Anna Russell of the University of San Diego asserts that the cyborg (humanoid robot) can no longer be regarded merely as a literary device in science-fiction stories. For all practical purposes, cyborgs exist. And it is inevitable that complicated legal issues will arise, she says, as soon as traditional human "love lines" are blurred, when humans become intimate with machines.

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