Two weeks ago Yamaha unveiled a visually impressive but narratively unsettling video to announce the R&D of an autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid robot called Motobot. Yamaha hopes Motobot will one day ride an unmodified motorcycle as capably as – or even better than – the best of us. Speeding at 125mph on a winding racetrack demands a high degree of accuracy and grants a low margin of error. Mechanics are as important as the mechanism when navigating hairpin turns. But the video left me with one simple looming question: What’s Motobot’s purpose?
Motobot looks cool but it isn’t exactly practical. It’s not a consumer product and certainly won’t soon be found on city streets like Google’s self-driving vehicles. According to a Yamaha press release, the research and technology behind Motobot is meant to help engineers increase rider safety, test rider-support systems, and open new lines of business. Perhaps with Motobot, Yamaha can push their motorcycles to a limit and subject it to stresses that are unreasonable when operated by a human driver. In this sense Motobot is a test dummy with a grip and clutch. This pursuit is absolutely honorable.
But the bot presented in Yamaha’s video isn’t just any old dummy – it’s a speaking, apparently self-learning android that takes its mark as our competitor. The divide between the Mobot of press release and the Motobot of promotional video is stark. As the video begins Motobot seems to grapple with the same existential question I raised above: “I was created to surpass you,” Motobot says of his purpose in a youthful robotic voice. “I am improving my skills everyday, but I am not sure if I can even beat the five-year-old you.” It’s not entirely clear what Motobot strives to surpass us in (presumably motorcycle riding) or what five-ear-old us he intends to beat (probably the five-year-old you on a tricycle) but his starting line introduction rings with the cautions of a dystopian robotic future. Are robots and AI really created to surpass us?
This all makes for an engaging, sensational, and disquieting advertisement. “Perhaps if I learn everything about you I will be able to catch up,” Motobot continues in static intonation. The desire to learn is a fundament of being human and self-learning is a fundament of AI. Intelligent systems are created to learn from themselves and learn as much as they can within a given domain. But Motobot’s want to learn everything about us is at odds with its task of motorcycle driving.
But just as viewers are beginning to be suspicious of the robot’s intentions, Yamaha has Motobot shifts gear from enigmatic and unsettling to impressive as its shown driving down a closed course at over 60mph. His motorcycle still sports training wheels but he says, “Look, I can ride like this now”, as he manages to maintain a straight line and take turns many people would find difficult. “The way you ride is both beautiful and exciting,” he says, presumably to professional racers. “I am not human but there has to be something only I am capable of.” It’s again unspecified what Motobot’s superlative task is.
Which brings us back to its purpose. In the press release Motobot is presented as an aid to researchers, a tool to teach them more about the rider-motorcycle relationship, control systems, and other nuances of operation. But the Motobot of the promotional video doesn’t mention it has any role in contributing to human safety or performance. It’s rather the opposite – a competitor to mankind presented as some form of future athlete. There’s a divide between Motobot as a tool for driver safety and as a competitor in the promotional video. Best bet is Motobot will be a research tool – helping refine the way motorcycles suit their riders. But the question lingers: Why does Yamaha’s promotional video depict Motobot as a competitive AI? The simplest answer is AI just sells better.