Zero to Sixty (by Thinking Real Hard)

The last American car my family had was a Ford LTD station wagon. It was blinding white with blue vinyl interior, and displaced only slightly less tonnage than a Ticonderoga-class destroyer. When I was around 12, my dad sold it for $100 to a guy who lived across the street, where we watched it linger a few more years before it was hauled away. I learned to drive in a Saab, drove a Jetta in college, and sold that when I moved to New York in 1997. I haven't owned a car since. So I've never really had much first-hand experience with a U.S.-made automobile. I couldn't begin to tell you what's wrong with them, other than what I read in the media. These days, there's quite a bit to read. Layoffs, bailouts, bankruptcy — we've lost the edge in an industry we built from the ground up, and an awful lot of people want to know why. Everyone and their uncle's dentist has an opinion on the matter. One central question seems to swirl at the heart of the debate: What is it about Japanese automakers that's gotten them so far ahead?

Well I'm no expert, but I think I can sum it up fairly succinctly.

While we were trying to figure out how to make the best President's Day Sale graphics, they were building robots that can read your mind.

No, seriously. They were building robots that can read your effing mind.

The robot in question is named ASIMO, which some of you might find familiar. It's the little robot androgyne that Honda has been honing for over twenty years, the one that ambles about with knees slightly bent as if perpetually worried about bumping its head. The basic goal of the project is to replicate human motion, growing from early prototypes that were little more than boxes with legs. Their website is replete with video demonstrations of ASIMO climbing stairs, ASIMO kicking a soccer ball, ASIMO dunking on Andrei Kirilenko — basic movements that any healthy person can do.

But demonstrating practical uses is also a good idea, so Honda includes examples of ASIMO carrying a tray of refreshments and offering one to a curiously unfazed young woman. She wouldn't be so cordial with the botling if she knew it has a switch marked "Offer refreshments/MURDER." Okay, that may just be conjecture on my part.* Regardless, Honda's engineers realized that having robot servants is great and all, but giving them verbal commands is not only time consuming, but leaves room for misinterpretation.

ASIMO #1: Wait, did she say refreshments or murder? ASIMO #2: Not sure, better do both just to be safe. Assorted houseguests: Oh look, the robots are bringing us refreshments!

The solution, of course, is to design a way to relay commands directly from the brain. Using EEG scans and near-infrared spectroscopy, the system learns to recognize when the user is thinking about raising the left arm, raising the right arm, etc. The signals are processed and translated into action. You think it, the system does it.

Okay. Couple of things.

Here's a direct quote from the BusinessWeek article: "Honda reassures doubters that its 'non-invasive' technology needs no special training and doesn't require the installation of electrodes inside people's heads." When you have to go out of your way to reassure people that you're not implanting circuitry in their heads, you have fucked up. Big-time. Oh don't worry, you won't be required to pierce your own eye sockets with cyberoptic implants, granting the robot direct access to your brain and allowing you to see x-ray and gamma radiation. Hey Honda, guess what? We weren't worried about that at all, right up until you told us not to be worried about it.

But wait! More from the very same paragraph!

"To control ASIMO using Honda's 'Brain-Machine Interface,' a willing human just has to wear a special helmet that is connected to a large box of top-secret machinery." Well gosh, is that all? That right there's a bargain! Hell, I was going to do that anyway, throwing in control of the robot is icing on the cake.

If I might paraphrase my own rule of thumb, when you hear "willing human" and "top-secret machinery" in the same sentence, pay close attention to the rest of that sentence.

ASIMO was not designed by Honda's auto division, of course, but since that's the company's raison d'être, it's natural to wonder about potential applications. For decades, concept cars have trotted out futuristic visions of auto-pilot, but personally I think that's a non-starter. People like the visceral feeling that comes with control of the vehicle — it's why standard transmission is still cool. Changing the music and temperature without taking your hands off the wheel is a nice thought, but my socks remain un-knocked off.

I'll tell you what, though. While I may not have a car, I know all too well the lament of the New York City car owner. Parking spaces become an obsession, a dance that must be maintained at a fever pitch day and night, heedless of the fatigue that drains your muscles. Imagine if you could look out of your apartment window, see an open space right by your door, and summon your car like Aquaman directing a school of cod. Build us that, and we'll give you what little money we have left.

How about other uses for the technology? The perversion factor here really has no ceiling, but the more I think about it, I keep coming back to replacing the TV remote. And yes, I know how unabashedly lazy that sounds. I am old enough to remember getting up and walking across the room to change the channel, on a cable box the size of a pastrami sandwich, whose switch went from 1-13 and A-Z and that was it. But those days are simply gone, and I feel it's acceptable — nay, commendable — to complain now about having to hold the remote at annoying angles because the coffee table's in the way, especially if I'm lying face down on the couch. Or, you know, on the floor. Plus, the batteries suffer a lingering half-death that doesn't quite justify replacing them, and forces me to gesticulate with the remote as one would with a fencing foil.

But what I really want is this. I want to be able to put on the psychic-machine helmet, close my eyes, and think:

"Hi there, Mr. Robot. Kindly design us a car that doesn't suck. Please and thank you." *But I'm pretty sure.