The Remarkable Rise of Elektro the Robot: How One Machine Pioneered Humanlike Artificial Intelligence

Imagine attending the 1939 New York World‘s Fair among awe-struck crowds gathered around a 7-foot tall, 265 pound robot. As you take in its aluminum body and lumbering gait, the machine fixes you in its gaze. Then suddenly, a tinny voice emanates from its chest – "My brain weighs one and a half tons!" it declares. The robot then smoothly raises its arm to count on its fingers as spectators murmur in astonishment. Meet Elektro – the world‘s first celebrity robot built by Westinghouse engineers over 80 years ago. While not the first machine to walk, talk, and gesture of its own accord, Elektro represented major leaps towards the ultimate goal: a humanlike artificial being.

Westinghouse‘s Robotics Revolution

Elektro extended Westinghouse‘s trailblazing but overlooked lineage pioneering robotics in the early 20th century. Before shocking the world at the 1939 World‘s Fair, Westinghouse developed several animatronic machines that could stand, speak short phrases, and make limited motions. Telegraphy enthusiast Joseph Barnett led these efforts, starting in 1927 with Herbert Televox – a disembodied talking "head" made of wax, valves, and motors. Its unsettling verisimilitude amazed people unaccustomed to a conversing machine.

Barnett improved upon these concepts a few years later with Mr. Telelux, an automated fortune teller whose eerie predictions drew crowds. Underneath Telelux‘s mask and robe, Barnett concealed a complex network of transmitters, amplifiers, receivers, and record players that powered its speech. While revolutionary in the 1930s, Telelux‘s capabilities pale compared to Elektro – Barnett‘s crowning robotic achievement.

Bringing Elektro to Life

Sensing an opportunity after Telelux‘s warm reception, the Westinghouse company fully backed Barnett‘s boldest robot endeavor yet. They entrusted him with considerable funding and laboratory space to develop what Barnett envisioned as a true mechanical man. His goal? An autonomous bipedal automaton that didn‘t just talk but moved with all the dexterity of a human being.

Barnett chose aluminum for Elektro‘s body to prevent rust and corrosion that could damage its intricate inner workings. This lightweight but sturdy metal enabled smooth joint movement within Elektro‘s over 7 foot tall frame. In total over a dozen electric motors powered by amps of electricity gave motion to Elektro‘s arms, fingers, neck, mouth, and legs. Nine motors operated appendages specifically while smaller motors controlled auxiliary functions like smoking cigarettes. Elektro‘s engineers carefully calibrated the timing and articulation of each motor to produce eerily organic, humanlike motion.

Instead of pre-recorded audio like Telelux, Barnett wanted Elektro to respond conversationally to speech. Its chest housed a telephone receiver linked to an analog voice control system. Spoken commands passed through this receiver translated into coded electrical signals – different vibrational patterns for every word Elektro knew. Filters distinguished between voices whileGERLO 31 vacuum tubes converted speech into the requisite signals for response motors.

Stealing the Show at the 1939 World‘s Fair

Even the skeptical applauded Elektro‘s flawless performances at Westinghouse‘s ambitious 1939 World Fair exhibition. For 20 minute runtimes every hour, Elektro strode on stage to delight packed audiences with clever jokes, colorful balloons, and whimsical banter with Sparko – its robotic canine companion. Spectators marveled at the expressiveness of Elektro‘s voice and motions as it fluidly waved, gripped objects, and walked steadily to avoid toppling all 265 pounds forward. Its occasional stumbles and awkward pauses betraying hidden wheels and motors only added to Elektro‘s charisma.

Behind the scenes, engineer Joseph Barnett meticulously coordinated Elektro‘s every word and gesture through its telephone control system. Despite full manual operation, Elektro awed fairgoers by deftly responding to their spontaneous questions and commands. Some mistook Elektro for an automated machine – a reasonable assumption considering its significant technological advancements over previous automatons of the period.

Pioneering Feats of Engineering

In fact, Elektro‘s illusions of autonomy placed it closer to modern AIs then we may realize in hindsight. It performed better and appeared more humanlike then contemporary fictional robots like Lost in Space‘s B9 robot. Compare footage of Elektro‘s 1939 demo reel versus this 1965 TV robot – the difference is striking!

FeatureElektro (1939)Lost in Space B9 Robot (1965)
Speech Recognition700 wordsBeeps/buzzes only
Speech CapabilityFull sentencesBrief slogans
Gestures26 distinct motionsStatic/slow rotation only
AutonomyHuman-operatedRemote control/stop motion

This comparison shows Elektro outpacing or at least matching later mass media robots that embedded popular conceptions of automation. Elektro‘s technical feats were equally remarkable, featuring pioneering implementations of voice control, pattern recognition, natural language processing, and motor articulation. These founding technologies remain essential to today‘s AI almost a century later!

Continue reading for insights on Elektro‘s lasting impact on robotics and predictions for equally revolutionary machines yet to come!

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