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Elektro – The Pioneering Robot of Westinghouse

Let‘s journey back over 80 years to meet one of the world‘s first humanoid robots – Elektro built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Though you may not have heard of Elektro before, this 7-foot tall, 265 pound robot captivated audiences in the late 1930s with its ability to speak, move, and yes, even smoke!

The Making of Elektro

In 1937, Westinghouse engineers Joseph Barnett and Harry E. Slomer were tasked with creating publicity robots for the company. Barnett had already built the robot duo of Herbert Televox and Mr. Telelux earlier that decade. For their new robot named Elektro, Barnett and Slomer constructed an aluminum body over a steel frame and installed a series of motors connected to telephone relays that controlled Elektro‘s speech and motion.

Technical Specifications

  • Height: 7 feet
  • Weight: 265 pounds
  • Aluminum and steel construction
  • Series of 11 electric motors powering motion
  • 78 RPM records + telephone relays enable 700 word vocabulary
  • Photoelectric cells in eyes distinguishing red and green light

Let‘s explore Elektro‘s internal components further:

Internal Mechanics

Elektro‘s motions were directed by a complex network of telephone relays, electric motors, gears, and pulleys as seen in this diagram:

48 relays routed signals to 11 electric motors powering Elektro‘s speech and movement. A central control unit weighed 25 kg and coordinated all functionality. Key components included:

  • Electric Eye – Detected visual stimuli like red and green lights
  • Photoelectric Cells – Converted light signals enabling Elektro to "see"
  • Signal Lights – Indicated the active relay circuit during operation

This electro-mechanical system was revolutionary for its day. Now let‘s explore Elektro‘s human-like capabilities.

Amazing Capabilities

While Elektro‘s capabilities seem simple by today’s standards, people were amazed at what this robot could do:

  • Movement – Elektro could move his head, arms, and fingers slowly while counting
  • Speech – Elektro had a vocabulary of 700 words strung together via 78 RPM records and relays
  • Vision – Photoelectric cells in the eyes detected red and green light
  • Smoking – An internal bellows system allowed the robot to ‘smoke‘ cigarettes

Modern humanoid robots utilize far more advanced technology for mobility and cognition, yet still struggle to match Elektro‘s fluid motions. His ability to follow voices commands also compares impressively to today‘s virtual assistants like Siri which require substantial computing power behind the scenes.

Command and Control through Voices

Elektro responded to verbal commands delivered through a telephone handset receiver in his chest. This handset converted words into corresponding electric impulses that traveled to the brain relay activating the associated circuit.

For example, saying "Hello Elektro" triggered a relay that powered the wave motor in Elektro‘s right arm. Different words produced distinct impulse patterns, allowing Elektro to understand and respond to hundreds of voice commands.

Modern voice recognition leverages neural networks running advanced statistical models instead of relays. However, the basic principles remain similar – translating speech into signals that trigger appropriate responses from the robot.

In the Spotlight at the World‘s Fair

Elektro captured international attention while on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The public marveled as Elektro counted numbers, followed light beams, and ‘spoke‘ pre-recorded phrases:

"My brain is bigger than yours," Elektro would boast.

Year Number of Fair Attendees
1939 25 million
1940 21 million

Based on these attendance figures, Elektro entertained over 45 million World Fair visitors – likely the most widely witnessed robot in history at the time!

Elektro returned to the 1940 World‘s Fair along with Sparko – a robotic dog capable of barking, sitting, and begging. These lovable robots demonstrated remarkable innovation during the dawn of the computer era.

The Historical Significance of Elektro

Elektro kickstarted American interest in robots and the quest to develop more capable, thinking machines. Scientists like Alan Turing began theorizing about advanced robots soon after witnessing Elektro‘s premature intelligence.

In fact, just 12 years after Elektro‘s debut, Turing published a groundbreaking paper proposing criteria to evaluate a machine‘s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to a human. This became known as the Turing test – perhaps the most influential framework used even today to assess artificial intelligence.

Consumer robot vacuums like the Roomba also trace their roots back to Elektro as well. iRobot, Roomba‘s manufacturer, directly credits early automatons like Elektro for inspiring the home cleaning robot.

While Elektro seems crude and limited compared to today’s robots and AI, this early humanoid broke ground by:

  • Responding to voice commands
  • Exhibiting autonomous decision making abilities
  • Showcasing emergent levels of artificial intelligence

The Future of Robotics and AI

Current forecasts predict the global market for consumer and business robots will surpass $30 billion by 2025. Rapid advancement continues in fields like machine learning as algorithms begin mimicking the network structure of human brains.

Looking ahead to the 2030s we may witness:<

  • Affordable home robots assisting with cleaning, social interaction, education, etc.
  • Significant automation of repetitive jobs like cashiers, drivers, service roles
  • AI matching certain specialized skills like analyzing medical scans
  • Emergence of general artificial intelligence rivaling broader human cognition

As these ambitions technologies progress from fiction towards reality, maintaining safe, ethical standards must remain a priority. Policymakers have proposed various guidelines regarding transparency, accountability, privacy, and control to properly govern advanced AI. Striking the right balance can help realize immense societal benefits.

Just over 80 years since Elektro wowed crowds, much of what seemed improbable at the time has now come true. And thanks to the imaginative inventors behind Elektro, the most exciting applications likely still lie ahead!