Roboburgh: Pittsburgh has always been a leader in the robotics revolution | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Roboburgh: Pittsburgh has always been a leader in the robotics revolution

“Pittsburgh’s lot in life is that we innovate.”

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that celebrates Pittsburgh’s Bicentennial.

In 1939, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric took the World’s Fair by storm. Weighing in at 265 pounds and clad in brushed aluminum, Westinghouse’s seven-foot tall humanoid robot, Elektro, was unlike anything attendees had seen.

“It’s 1939 and Westinghouse wants to show off for the World’s Fair in New York City,” says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Heinz History Center, where a replica of Elektro resides. “So they build this robot called Elektro. He can walk, talk and recognize colors. He can smoke cigarettes like it’s going out of style. He’s the hit of the World’s Fair.”

Elektro wasn’t the first robot out of Pittsburgh. (Another, Herbert Televox, was built in 1927 at Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant.) But his national notoriety cemented Pittsburgh’s standing as a source of technological innovation, a legacy that continued in the 1970s and ’80s with Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department and has led to CMU’s reputation as a robotics giant. In 1999 the Wall Street Journal named the city “Roboburgh.”

“We were innovative in 1939 and imagined futures that have now come to pass,” says Masich. “Now Pittsburgh is seen as a robotics capital of the world.”

Elektro could walk by voice command, used a record player to speak approximately 700 words, and detected red and green light thanks to photoelectric eyes. And following the success of its endeavor, Westinghouse later gave him a companion.

“The people of America were so enchanted with Elektro, and they said, ‘Oh, he must be lonely because he’s the only one.’ So they said, ‘You have to build him a woman,’” says Masich. “Designs came up and these women robots looked like Madonna in a target bra on steroids, just horrific creations. So the engineers at Westinghouse built him a dog instead: Sparko the Wonder Dog. And Sparko only took commands from Elektro. He wouldn’t listen to anybody else.”

But many have forgotten about this piece of Pittsburgh history. Much more familiar is work at CMU that occurred over the past five decades, especially the work of roboticist William “Red” Whittaker. He put CMU on the map, when he and his colleagues built robots to inspect the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island after a near-meltdown in 1979. CMU also developed robots to examine structures at Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear-reactor accident in 1986. 

“The great promise of robots is to extend human skills and enhance human lives,” said Matt Mason, director of the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, in a 2013 statement when the institute received $7 million in federal funds as part of a national initiative. “The National Robotics Initiative is helping researchers here at Carnegie Mellon and across the country make that promise a reality.”

Today, the Robotics Institute at CMU is regularly in the headlines for its work with transportation company Uber. The two have joined forces to develop self-driving car technology, and CMU reportedly has already created a prototype. Pittsburgh is set to be a testing ground for this technology.

“This technology represents the natural progression of automation and will have a major positive impact on society, since transportation is a hub of modern economies,” said Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab, in a 2014 statement.

If the team at CMU is successful, its driverless cars will join a list of technologies that originated in Pittsburgh and spread throughout the world. CMU robots have already traversed the ice fields of Antarctica, active volcanoes in Alaska and the surface of Mars.

“Pittsburgh’s lot in life is that we innovate and come up with ideas, and then those ideas run off on their own, just as our children do. That’s the way the human species works,” says Masich, who currently serves as chairman of the City of Pittsburgh Bicentennial Commission. “We disseminate knowledge. That’s what Pittsburgh has always done. I think we shouldn’t lament the diaspora of our talent or our innovation or our ideas; we should celebrate it. And that’s one of the things we’re doing with the 200th birthday. We’re celebrating how Pittsburgh has made a better world.”

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