WHEN PEOPLE PRETEND TO BE ROBOTS
On 12th January 1938, the German inventor Albert Creuziger demonstrated his latest innovation at the Savoy in London. Rupert the Robot could perform the kinds of everyday human activities that suddenly become impressive in the hands of a non-human and people marvelled at his ability to put on a hat and pour a drink.
Rupert was reported to have cost $20,000 to construct and was regarded as a huge leap forward in technology. There was just one problem: Rupert the Robot was, in fact, human. When the trick was revealed and people realised they were just looking at a chap with a jaunty walk, his ability to put on a hat suddenly became much less impressive. But this is by no means an isolated incident. There are hundreds of examples of people pretending to be robots or robotic dolls and, in many cases, seemingly getting away with it.
It’s easy to be cynical about the motivation behind such shenanigans. After all, many of the American examples, in particular, were publicity stunts for brands and coincided with the rise of Madison Avenue and the development of advertising as an art. However, regardless of the various motivations behind such stunts, this kind of pretence does speak to our fascination with what makes us human and how determined we seem to create automata that imitate us, whilst wanting to also ensure we remain distinct.
Here are five more times that people pretended to be robots.
Miss Honeywell (1968)
In 1968, a “robot” named Miss Honeywell delighted and amazed onlookers at the Instruments, Electronics and Automation Exhibition at Olympia in London. People gasped as Miss Honeywell’s “operator” twisted knobs and buttons on a nearby machine to make her “talk like a dalek” and walk around the exhibition centre in a “life-like manner.” British Pathe news even reported that the invention was “the world’s first robotic woman.”
The more that people witnessed Miss Honeywell’s behaviour, however, the less convinced they were and, when it was revealed that the President of Honeywell Electronics was also a member of the Magic Circle, the game was immediately up! Miss Honeywell was, of course, just a person with some gold face-paint and an ability to entertain, and Honeywell renaming her and continuing to show her did nothing to convince people otherwise.
The Turk (1769-1854)
Featuring an actual automaton seated at a cabinet and playing chess, The Turk was invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen and travelled the world playing chess with the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Benjamin Franklin and Napolean Bonaparte. When the best chess-player in the world at the time, Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, beat The Turk in 1783, he said it was one of the most difficult opponents he’d ever played.
The Turk was demonstrated across Europe and became famous for drawing large crowds and caused consternation at its ability to beat some of the most impressive minds in the world. While there was widespread admiration for the invention, there was also considerable dis-ease at the idea a machine had been invented that could apparently supersede human intelligence, and people were fearful about what might come next.
After The Turk was destroyed by fire in 1854, von Kempelen’s son revealed it had been a hoax and that despite the elaborate display before every demonstration, which included a dramatic opening and closing of all the doors of the cabinet to show that no deception was at play, the cabinet had actually concealed a human chess player operating the automaton above him to make the appropriate moves.
In 1868, The Turk was succeeded by Agreeb and its inventors insisted it was “real.” Despite it now being common knowledge that The Turk had been a hoax, it seems people were convinced by Agreeb, who went on to play chess against Houdini, O’Henry and Theodor Roosevelt. Like The Turk, Agreeb was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1929.
Although The Turk and Agreeb were both fake, they were more than just entertainment and certainly demonstrate just how strong the desire was to build machines that could think. This paved the way towards the artificial intelligence that is increasingly a part of life today, and The Turk was cited by Babbage as the inspiration for the invention of the Difference Engine.
La Motogirl (1903)
La Motogirl was a wind-up doll in every possible way!
Billed as a violin-playing robot, Motogirl was essentially a music hall act that became incredibly popular across America and Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, she was so popular that a German act decided to copy the idea, leading to Motogirl’s “owner” bringing legal action for copyright infringement.
From the first day of court proceedings, Motogirl appeared in court as a wind-up doll, complete with a key to fit in her back and packed in a presentation box with the lid removed. The box was propped up against the judges’ bench and Motogirl was regarded and treated as an object.
When the court was ordered to be cleared so the judges could debate the merits and outcome of the case, one of the them stated that “of course the doll can remain.” This meant that Motogirl was party to the judges’ discussion and heard the ruling that fell in her favour before anyone else did!
Rose Marie and Will Mackford (1925)
Rose Marie was a music hall “robot” who toured with her “owner”, Will Mackford, in the interwar years. She looks more convincing in some photos than in others and it seems there was certainly an appetite for the act, which travelled around Belgium (and possibly the Netherlands) with great popularity. Information on this act is scarce compared with some of the others but I include it anyway because I think it’s interesting in its strangeness, which feels a little more disturbing than in some of the other examples.
Robot Boris (2018)
In 2018, Russian state television reported that Robot Boris had been on show at the state-sponsored Proyektoria Technology Forum in Yaroslavl. The report claimed the robot was a symbol of advanced robotic technology and that it could even manage complex tasks such as dancing in rhythm and holding a basic conversation.
When MBKh Media, the news outlet founded by Putin’s opponent, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, started to question where the accompanying research could be found, why the robot didn’t appear to have any sensors and, perhaps most glaringly of all, why it looked like there might be a man inside it, the embarrassment was palpable from the Kremlin and from the state-owned broadcaster, Channel One. Photographs were then published of the man inside the robot suit, ending any speculation once and for all, and Channel One was forced to issue a correction.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s media company was banned and shut down by the Russian state in 2021.