A Mate Walking Together

A Mate Walking Together

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The Wako Research Center had just been established in April 1986 to perform research in four main areas: jet aircraft, gas turbines, ultra-lightweight/driverless automobiles and robots. Hirose had been hired to head up a project that could only be described as a dream of the Honda he had so highly revered. It was a field entirely unrelated to anything he had ever been involved in. He thought to himself, there is absolutely no way that I will be able to realize it.

Only one week later, Hirose made his first presentation before Nobuhiko Kawamoto, then president of Honda R&D. Hirose went in to the meeting with a sketch that he was not particularly proud of or confident about. The president listened to Hirose’s presentation with his eyes closed, concentrating.

The instant the presentation was finished, Kawamoto exploded: “You call this drawing a design?”

Stunned, Hirose could not recall much of what happened next, but he did remember Kawamoto and the other executives having a passionate debate about the topic at hand. Forgetting that he had just been yelled at, Hirose listened, impressed with the executives’ deep knowledge of what was going on in the workplace. It was Hirose’s very first introduction to “Hondaism.”

One evening soon thereafter, Hirose was reading a technical paper in the laboratory. He heard the sound of a door opening behind him, and when he turned around, Kawamoto was standing there.

“You don’t get it yet, do you? It’s not about reading papers and thinking about technology just with your brain. You have to think with your body and think at the spot,” said Kawamoto, explaining Hondaism with as much passion as he had demonstrated in the recent meeting.

The next day, Hirose completely changed his methodology. He threw away the technical papers and began to intently study his own stride. He took videos of himself walking, analyzed the movements and programmed a machine to emulate them. With its two imitation human legs, the machine would take a few steps and topple over. Hirose would analyze his stride some more, reprogram the machine and make it walk again. It would topple over, Hirose would analyze his stride again, reprogram the machine… and the process would start all over again.

Far from the image of leading-edge research, Hirose’s experiments consisted of simple and repetitive trial and error. Like a baby trying to go from crawling to walking on two legs, slowly but surely Hirose came to understand the mechanism of the human stride.

Through these efforts, Honda was able to complete its first prototype robot, the E1. Watching the E1 walk slowly forward on two legs, Kawamoto said, “You’ve done well, Hirose. But people don’t walk this slowly, do they?” A refusal to compromise, Hirose learned, was another important element of Hondaism.

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