A Vintage Robot in the Land of Shiny New Gadgetry

I stood before the most impressive display of virtual reality I have ever seen, and maybe the very latest VR in the world. Dozens of people clambered around a structure as big as a three-story building while massive screens displayed an action-packed digital world. On a simulated roller coaster, passengers masked by headsets climbed and plunged in rows of seats. Two levels up, guides helped riders on and off dirt bike motorcycles that were anchored to the floor but zooming off into cyberspace.

This was the mightiest display I’d seen yet at CES 2018, the cutting-edge tech conference that lured a quarter-million people to Las Vegas this week.

Transfixed, I nearly forgot I was holding a humble time traveler from another era: A one-foot-tall, friendly faced, silver robot of indeterminate age, which was apparently blinking its little green and red lights amiably at a guide to the awe-inspiring VR display.

“What is that?” she asked, bending down and looking curiously into the robot’s face. She was smiling, intrigued.

“It’s a vintage robot we found at our company,” I said.

She looked at the updated branding on a sticker I afixed to the robots’s chest the day before. “I use this!” she said. “I have for years.”

I took a picture of her holding the robot and sent it to her. She asked what the robot could do, and I told her it could talk. In fact, it could say anything. “What would you like it to say?” I asked her.

She looked at the robot thoughtfully for a long time.

Found on a shelf

Months ago I found the robot slumped on a shelf, a long forgotten toy. It was oddly heavy. Was there something inside it? Its little lights were dark, had been for years, no doubt. Was there a place inside for batteries? I tried and tried, but couldn’t open it. Finally I knocked its block off with a hammer and screwdriver. Big screws had connected head and body. Long ago someone placed two D-cell batteries inside with no intention of ever replacing them. Planned obsolescense. Left behind like Wall-E.

Room for something inside

I went to work. With new batteries he blinked red and green again, like a belated Christmas present. And there was something else inside: nothing. There was a compartment. An empty space. Room for something more.

“What can I make it do?” I asked my son, a software engineer whose first toys were more recent than the robot.

“If you put a Bluetooth speaker inside,” my son said on the phone, “he could talk.”

He could talk!

A quick look through mobile apps showed text-to-voice real-time capabilities in many languages. I could bring a vintage robot to CES and have him say anything.

This project was expanding, but I was not alone. My son was now invested, asking for updates on Facebook Messenger.

Team vintage robot

At a crowded Best Buy, an employee investigated Bluetooth specs of the smallest cordless speaker. Returning from a consultation with his manager and a manual, he concluded with a serious face: “He should be able to talk.”

I also needed to replace old logos with new branding. This meant getting clear stickers the right size made overnight. A print shop did a rush custom job. And more. “I might be able to help you fix that on his chest,” the printer said, pointing to a big black scuff. He disappeared into the back of the shop, then returned with a solvent and a co-worker. The three of us huddled around the robot. “Nope,” the first printer lamented. “It’s down in the paint. … Hold on. I might have some silver vinyl in the back.” Soon we stood beaming at our spiffed up machine that was quickly becoming a real boy. Tinocchio.

Now I had to get a curious old toy full of batteries, wires, and an electronic receiver through TSA and onto my flight. This was not easy.

Five agents gathered around the robot. “Is that a speaker inside him?” an agent asked. “Yes, ma’am,” I said, “So he can talk.” “He can talk?” another agent asked, smiling. “What is it?” another agent asked, leaning in. “He’s a vintage robot,” the first agent said. She looked to her stone-faced supervisor. Betraying no emotion, he looked her in the eye and gave the tiniest nod.

And that’s how I brought a robot back to life, gave him a voice, and brought him to the Mecca of new technology. (At CES, Apple introduced the first pocket computer sometime around the time the robot was made.)

Immediately popular

And from the beginning, he was a hit.

“What’s his name?” asked a digital marketer. I thought for a minute, then replied, “Li’l Mac.”

“Li’l Mac,” she marveled, gazing at him.

Soon the marketer was interviewing Li’l Mac, who responded to her questions with a choppy British baritone.

CES attendees from China gathered around him, taking pictures. They consulted for a few minutes in a huddle, and one asked, “Can he say something in Mandarin?”

He posed for photos with Buddy, the home security robot awarded a CES Best of Innovation Award for 2018 in the robotics and drones category.

Over and over CES attendees stopped their hurried pace, peered into his face, and asked questions. “What can he do?” they asked, and learning he can talk, “What can he say?”

Which brings us back to the guide at the massive VR exhibit. She looked at me with big eyes and said, “Make him say ______________________________.”

It was simple, sweet, and deeply human.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, blushing a little.

Deeply human

In the long, brooding, and in my opinion brilliant “Blade Runner 2049,” the basic decency of robots is painfully enacted against the backdrop of an unforgiving Dystopian world. What made us love Wall-E is that he loved Eva. The most striking thing about Buddy, the prize 2018 CES robot is his big, achingly friendly eyes.

We want tech to overwhelm us, but not to oversee us. We need a connection that involves trust. Security, the field in which I work, has a rich and multi-faceted meaning. Secure as in locked down, but also as in reassured, and confident. More than anything else, we want tech to tell us it has our backs.

I typed her request into the app. “OK,” I told the guide, “He’s going to say it.”

She leaned in, stared bright-eyed at his face, smiled with anticipation, and waited as the world behind her hurtled into the future.

Written by

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist working in the blogosphere. Once sold books to Johnny Cash. My Medium post about that was praised by Paris Review.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store