Pure audacity: the fake robot scam

In 1979, as a young journalist, I was commissioned to take a trip around the world, visiting all the important Artificial Intelligence labs. I was with my TV science documentary colleague Volker Arzt and we were doing a general research project for GEO magazine and German TV. On the first full day in New York, November 8th, we visited computer scientist Ken Thompson at Bell Labs in New Jersey. That was a wonderfully enlightening meeting. On the second day we drove out to a robotic research company which had recently been in the news. That was a completely different experience.

This company, Quasar, had a robot that it said could “vacuum, dust, cook meals, walk the dog, and do the laundry.” It even conversed with people and had humour. The robot, called Klatu, had been shown at the Hannover Messe, one of the largest trade fairs in the world, and had been splashed all over the German media.

When we arrived at the “robotic institute” in New Jersey we were somewhat surprised that it looked nothing like a big technology enterprise — just some offices with sales people. It was late evening, but the company agreed to bring out their top model for Georg, our photographer. The picture on the left is one I snapped myself, with my amateur camera. The robot had lights in its head, its arms moved up and down.

On the parking lot we had our first close encounter with Klatu. When I approached it turned towards me and said: “Hello, stranger, what’s your name?” I answered, and it said: “Where are you from?” — “Would you like to guess?” I replied. “I think maybe from Germany. You have a German accent.” (I don’t). “Where are you from?” I asked. “I am from New Jersey,” it replied cheerfully, “I was built by the engineers of this very fine company.”

After some more similar exchanges we proceeded into the office. On the way Volker whispered very sternly: “Frederic, you are not going to say anything. Nothing critical. We are journalists and must find out as much as possible before we take a stand.” He saw that I was fuming. But I complied. How does the robot work, I asked the company CEO Tony. How does it recognize and understand language? He was glad to show us.

Tony pulled out a plywood board with an electronic circuit screwed on to it. There were a number of switches which one could press to make it speak a few words. “This is a module we have developed for speech synthesis,” he explained. “It can also think. Look, I’ll talk to it.” And he proceeded ask it some questions, which it answered in robotic speech. It even asked him to spell some words, which he did verbally. When he got it right it replied: “Correct!” Impressive, right?

Well, impressive for a gullible amateur, maybe. We had done a lot of research before our trip and knew what the state of the art in Artificial Intelligence was. In addition I knew the Texas Instruments Speak & Spell toy that had been recently released and was hugely popular. You can read about it in PCWorld’s Retro Tech section, from where I took the above images. What the Quasar people had done was to remove the circuit board from its case, attach a wire from a second intact S&S device to the speaker, and operate it remotely from another room. The switches allowed the company chief to conduct a primitive dialogue with the “AI”, making use of the S&S stored repertoire of comments. One had to admire the effort that was put into this little scam — probably all of two hours and a hundred dollars in cash.

Volker keep kicking me, not to say anything, and he, seasoned journalist, kept up a naive banter. We went outside and watched Georg photograph the robot in the parking lot. If you look closely at the picture at the top of the page you will spot a man standing behind the pay phone booth. He had his hand in a sling bag and a lapel mike attached to his collar. Clearly he was operating a remote control for the robot, and using one side of a walkie-talkie to make the robot talk. Georg was cool about it, saying to things like: “Make it raise its right arm higher.” He was only interested in good pictures for the magazine.

I was deeply insulted by the whole scheme, and after we left Volker and I spent some time discussing it. Clearly these people were making money — they showed us photographs of their robot at fairs, malls, events, and even in Hollywood. They were genuinely and unequivocally claiming that this was state-of-the-art AI. But what they had was obviously fake. So how could they sell it to anyone?

I came up with the explanation — in such matters Volker was the innocent one. This is how I imagine a sales pitch would go: after a demo, like the one we had received, the sales person would say: “So did you like it? Can you imagine how much publicity it will get for your (mattress store / ice cream parlour / trade show stand)? You will be showing the most advanced artificial intelligence in the world. The press will love it. The price? You want to buy just one, right? That would be $19,000.” (I don’t remember the exact price they were quoting in their flyers, but let’s assume that was it). The customer takes a deep breath and says “Okay, I’ll order one.”

Now comes phase two. The sales person continues: “We will want it to speak, right? The voice synthesis module is another $8,900. And you will need voice recognition, which is a very complex module — $17,500.” (I’m making up these numbers). “Then there’s the artificial intelligence itself. That’s state of the art — $28,000.” In the end the total comes to $75,000. The customer is horrified: “But the flyer said…” The sales rep laughs: “That is just the basic robot. Listen, you can’t get the world’s most advanced machine intelligence technology for peanuts.”

On to phase three. The customer is sitting glumly and the sales person says: “Looks like it is too much for you? Doesn’t fit your budget? Well, what are we to do?” After giving it some pretend thought he comes up with a new suggestion: “Listen, I assume you don’t want the robot for scientific purposes? You are not doing research, you want to use it purely for PR, to attract people to your store, right? Okay, here’s what we can do: we build you a simulation! We make you a robot that looks exactly like the one you just saw, but it does not have the expensive intelligence and the speech modules. You operate it with remote controls and radio voice transmission. You train some kid in your company to run the robot and make it behave just like the real thing! Nobody can tell the difference, and you keep the secret to yourself.”

So they take the “base model”, add advanced remote controls for moving around and gesturing with the robotic arms, and advanced radio communication broadcast to simulate the robot conversation. (Notice how often I have used the word “advanced” in this article. It was the buzzword they used on us.) “Comes to, hang on a minute… yes, $26,590. Now that’s a real deal, right? Better than $75,000. You will not regret this, I promise.”

Okay, I did not witness such a sales pitch, or record one. So, in the words of Bill Maher: I don’t know it for a fact…I just know it’s true.

If you have the nerves and the patience you can google “Quasar robot Klatu” and read some articles, from completely innocent to very critical. Or simply look at some contemporary pictures of the robot. Quite hilarious.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.