Quasar Industries' Domestic Android robot hoax

posted 26 March 2018
In the late 1970s a shady company called Quasar Industries, capitalizing on popular enthusiasm for robots following the release of Star Wars, rolled out an elaborate hoax. It was a robot that purported to have speech recognition and be capable of dozens of household tasks, including vacuuming the living room and walking the dog. In fact it was all just marketing and puppetry. More interesting is that it spurred a debate in the barely-formed Internet community at the time about free speech. This excerpt from the excellent book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, about the birth of the Internet, is fascinating:

Then, in the spring of 1977, Quasar rolled in the door. Its arrival marked the beginning of the first debate over free speech in cyberspace. The controversy centered on an unusual device made by Quasar Industries and blew up into an argument over using the taxpayer- fundedARPANETto speak, in openly critical terms, about a private company.

The brainchild of Quasar Industries, the device stood five feet four inches and weighed two hundred forty pounds. It was called the Domestic Android robot, a programmable helper that could perform a dozen basic household tasks such as mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, washing dishes, and serving cocktails. It came equipped with a personality and speech, so that it could “interact in any human situation.” It could “teach the kids French” and “continue teaching them, while they sleep.” At the advertised price of $4,000, the thing seemed a steal.

Phil Karlton of Carnegie-Mellon was the first to alert the Msg-Group, on May 26, 1977. His site on theARPANETwas heavily involved in exploring artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and related research problems, so he knew a thing or two about robots. The android and its inventor had attracted a fair amount of national press attention, most of it favorable. Quasar’s sales pitch had also caught the attention ofConsumer Reports,which ran a skeptical item on it in the June issue, just out.

At first Quasar seemed nothing but an amusing diversion from the MsgGroup’s main business. Everyone in the group knew the thing was a hoax, and for a while that seemed enough. But then a sense of civic duty arose. Dave Farber told of being in Boca Raton, Florida, and hearing on the radio that the Dade County police department was considering purchasing a Quasar guard robot for their county jail, for $7,000. In March theBoston Globeran a story quoting MIT’s Marvin Minsky and other skeptical AI experts. But the article took the overall attitude, said a MsgGroup member, that it “just goes to show you, those academicians can’t do anything practical, and all you need is some guy working in the back of a garage to put them to shame.” The saga left a trail of disbelief in the artificial intelligence research community.

Brian Reid and a colleague, Mark Fox, from the Carnegie-Mellon Artificial Intelligence Lab, posted an offbeat report to everyone in the MsgGroup, giving them a personal account of their inspection of the domestic robot, “Sam Strugglegear,” at a large department store in downtown Pittsburgh. People in the research community, knowing of CMU’s pioneering AI work, had been calling the Lab to ask how it was possible for Quasar’s robot to be so much better at speech recognition than anything CMU had produced. Rising to the challenge, a four-member team from CMU had done the fieldwork.

“They found a frightening sight,” reported Reid and Fox. In the men’s department, among the three-piece suits, was a five-feet-two-inch “aerosol can on wheels, talking animatedly” to a crowd. Electric motors and a system of gears moved the device’s arms. The robot seemed conversant on any subject, recognized the physical features of customers, and moved freely in any direction. The crowd was charmed.

But the scientists were skeptical. They looked around for some evidence of a remote controller. “Lo and behold, about ten feet from the robot, standing in the crowd, we found a man in a blue suit with his hand held contemplatively to his mouth like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in the famous Rembrandt painting.” Reid and the others watched for awhile and noticed that whenever the robot was talking, so was the man in the blue suit—muttering into his hand. The man had a wire dangling suspiciously from his waist.

The discussion about the Quasar robot continued on and off for a couple of years until in early 1979, Einar Stefferud, the MsgGroup’s moderator, and Dave Farber, who had been lurking on the sidelines of the commentary, sent a note of caution to the MsgGroup. “We are asking for potential problems,” they warned, “when we criticize the Quasar robot.” Using U.S. Government facilities to cast aspersions on a corporation, they said, could backfire on the ARPA research community. They urged their peers to impose careful self-censorship, to report only facts of technical interest to the community. Not everyone agreed, and with that the MsgGroup got embroiled in a soul-searching exchange.