Westinghouse, for example, toured the country showing off a $22,000 home robot called Miss Katrina Van Televox. Promotional materials claimed that it “talks ... answers the phone ... runs a vacuum cleaner
... makes coffee and toast ... [and] turns the lights on and off.”
Pretty amazing, given that no commercially available robot today can do that.
Westinghouse continued to develop robot technology, eventually building Elektro, the Moto-Man, which could “walk” (on wheels), “talk” via an actual record player
inside and respond to voice commands. He even smoked cigarettes. In a cheesy video promotion from the 1939 World’s Fair
, one audience member says: “Why, he’s almost human!”
Believing robots could perform like humans was pretty common; it was based on spectacular ignorance about the complexity of a person — and of a real robot. Creations like Westinghouse's persuaded the public that companies were on the brink of developing a robot that could replace a human servant, cleaning the house and doing other chores.
More than 80 years after Miss Katrina Van Televox wowed audiences, we do have housekeeping
robots and we do have humanoid robots. We have “robots” that can talk, answer the phone, vacuum the floor, make coffee and toast and turn the lights on and off. But none of these robots exist in a single entity, as envisioned by yesterday’s futurists.
Voicemail answers our phone. Our computers and phones can talk to us. Special-purpose robots vacuum and also mop the floors. Coffeemakers and toasters
are computerized. And all kinds of products exist to automate lights.
It turns out that the old vision of a robotic servant was based more on the inability to conceive that household chores could be done by special-purpose machines. Back then a human did all these things, so the solution for automation was to build a mechanical human.
Still, researchers are working on humanoid robots that actually do useful things. Here’s what’s coming.