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Yamaha’s motorbike-riding robot wants to be world champion

Yamaha’s new humanoid robot, Motobot, just learned to ride a motorbike and already it’s talking trash. At the recent Tokyo Motor Show where Motobot was unveiled, it announced that the reason it was created was to simply “surpass you.” Presumably, that means piloting a 1000cc Yamaha R1M around a racetrack at over 200kmph, and beating MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi.

Blathering on in a voice font crafted to ambiguous perfection, Motobot further inquires of us: “There has to be something only I am capable of?” Indeed there is one, and perhaps only one edge that Motobot now has on the track — it can’t die. While that advantage is a power that should never be underestimated in human-robot interaction, it’s going to take a lot more than courage to best a real rider around the track.

Without an impressive flagship robot, many Japanese companies might be devoid of vision. For nearly a decade, engineers everywhere have been inspired to greatness by the dance moves sported by Honda’s Asimo robot. Toyota’s equally impressive violin-playing robot delicately displays just how good predictive servo loops fed by 1,000+ encoder ticks-per-rev can be. However, actual sport usually entails a bit more than just cuing up a pre-programmed sequence or rant.

Although in theory you could program in the perfect track run as easily as you would plot a course in Pac-Man, the realty is that in any interesting endeavor, there will always remain enough unpredictability to wreak havoc. In other words, as the “undisputed truth” himself (boxer Mike Tyson) was often fond of saying — “every robot has a plan till it gets punched in the mouth.’ Yamaha’s approach of using a humanoid robot to autonomously pilot a largely unmodified motorbike probably isn’t the easiest way to do it, but there are certainly many merits to that conception.

At this point, it would seem that any new vehicle technology worth its salt would have at least some minimal capability for a default autonomous recovery mode in the event of human failure. As an example of this, consider that the mandatory retirement of pilots beyond a certain age, even those flying with co-pilots, is precisely scaled to the incidence of heart attack. If self-driving car technology is to be more than a fiction, then it might be fair to ask where is that minimal program and hardware that safely powers down a school bus when the heart of its aging veteran driver suddenly falters?

Instead of simple self-driving trains, planes, or boats, often the first vehicles to offer society at large some measure of autonomous control are those for which failure could be most catastrophic — and perhaps even likely. In other words, those cars with the most insane acceleration capabilities, even “ludicrous mode” powerplants, also tend to be the ones with the most capacity for self-governance. By contrast, we have $ 2 billion military blimps busting free from their moorings left and right without so much as the guidance capability of your smartphone on tap to bring it home. One needn’t know how to derive the equation for the volume of a blimp in order to realize that the textbook procedure for bringing its rampage to a halt — namely, shooting it full of holes — wastes ungodly amounts of strategic helium.

Yamaha isn’t the only one working on robobikes; Google and even private DIYers have all put forth different designs. No doubt in time a winning combination will be hit upon. And yet, the potential market for a self-driving motorcycle might appear rather grim. Nonetheless, the appeal of having all the brains for an autonomous control in a human footprint is hard to ignore. Not only could the same form factor potentially drive any number of different vehicles with only slight adjustments to its program, but the vehicles themselves would be dual-use ready right out of the box. The line between ‘light single engine craft’ and ‘drone’ instantly becomes blurred. By the same token, there is need to buy an expensive aftermarket retrofit for hands-free trawling on your Boston Whaler — just bring along your universal Motoboat buddy.

We’re being a bit hard on self-driving technology here, but there are several indications that the field is due for a dose of tough love. Much of the recent hype over how to imbue autonomous vehicles with ethics contains within itself many fallacies. For example, it sounds straightforward enough to ask whether a self-driving vehicle, whether car or bike, should imperil its single occupant to avoid 10 looming pedestrians. However, if your autonomous vehicle suddenly finds itself on an “unavoidable” collision course with such a crowd, it should and will be more than just the car that is surprised. The main falsehood herein is that a self-driving vehicle could ever properly determine the “greater good” — the problem simply dwarfs the problem of self-driving.

There is no foreseeable computational solution to a moral problem in infinite time, let alone the 150ms that Google says is how long their vehicles need to respond. The larger fiction inherent in this latency issue is that doing what we do 99% of the time using perhaps 1% of our ‘computational’ power means that autonomous vehicles, when called upon, can also do what we routinely must only by using all our power.

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