Interview with Masato Hirose -- "Falling down, getting up, and walking on" (page 3)

Interview with Masato Hirose

Apr 9, 2001

Falling means failure

--Your work may be fun, but all the more, you have to produce results too.

Hirose: Exactly. For instance, automobile races are often referred to as "running laboratories." It is okay when you win and attain the first seat in the race, but slipping into the second place means being the second best. In other words, you did not win. Results are everything. There are times when the process of the race is reviewed, but that is not evaluated. It is the final result that counts. Same thing can be said for robot development. To date, we have developed various element technology and mechanisms. Each time we develop something anew, we show the robot to the company's top management. They tell us to make the robot walk and we make it walk. But the robot falls down. We hear from the executives, "It is no use if it cannot walk and falls over." That is it. It does not matter how well it walked the day before if the robot falls down the day we show it to the audience. And much to my consternation, it seems that the only time the robot falls down is the day we show it to the company's top management. We feel utterly dejected. Obviously the robot falls down because the technology is not sufficiently mature. The only concern of the company, though, is whether it walks or not. Over the course of robot development, we do end up in devising a control technology and obtain a patent, but such was not what the company wanted from us. What they wanted was a humanoid robot. It was as simple as that. Given that only results count, the process itself did not matter at all. It never really occurred to us to hand in technical papers; only once in the 14 years of ASIMO development did we present any papers. Maybe obtaining patents was the only thing that was necessary other than developing robots. Registering patents and creating a humanoid robot were the two tasks for us, and we devised every means to accomplish them.

All were fervent

--Weren't you under any pressure with the development taking as long as 14 years?

Hirose: Well, of course, we were not given 10 or 20 years for R&D from the beginning. R&D period for automobiles is four to five years. Initially we were told to develop a humanoid robot within three to four years, but we ended up taking 14 years, so we were under some pressure, to be sure. Still, we never thought of giving up. It was because all of the members of the R&D team were diligent and passionate about their work. We would ambitiously set high goals and because of this, we would always look for ways to attain that goal. The team consisted of a string of these kind of eager researchers. Thus we never had a happy-go-lucky atmosphere in our office. Nor did anybody saunter the room wandering what to do each day.

--So the team was functioning well.

Hirose: During the first few years of development, we had a team of a dozen or so people who were all mechanical engineers, and no one ever had to face a difficult technical problem alone. I think we had a culture where we could speak out what were in our minds. We would get together everyday, anywhere, for "bull sessions." We would discuss in a raucous and an up-front manner, and not necessarily were we forced to reach a conclusion; we usually bounced ideas off each other, sharing our thoughts on doing this or trying that. After a day or two of holding talks, surprisingly though, we would always come up with ideas on what to do next.By all means, we would discuss matters thoroughly whenever we had to make decisions for setting technical directions. A couple of hours would soon fly even when our topics were on trivial issues. Let me give you one example. It was when we were trying to move on to the next stage of development from "E6" -- a torso-less prototype -- to "P1" -- a test machine equipped with an upper body. I suggested to my members that if we were going to attach an upper body, we should ensure that the robot could freely move in the waist area. However, everyone else was against my idea. Although I was the development team leader, I was the only person to insist. As I could not concede to their idea, I mused upon the matter all the way home from work. I got off at the station and walked around for a while until I happened to look around. I could not recognize where I was. I said to myself, "Huh? Where am I?" and then I realized that I had got off one station too soon. As such, developing humanoid robots totally engrossed my mind. I suppose everyone else was pretty much feeling the same passion for robots. In the end, I gave up the idea of giving the robot a freedom in moving its waste area for that issue.