The $15,000 A.I. From 1983

The $15,000 A.I. From 1983

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“Hello!” Hello. I thought this was gonna be awesome. But   this proto-Siri-Alexa virtual  assistant nearly destroyed me. I was flipping through the March 1987 issue of  Popular Science and saw THIS image of a cartoon   butler genie-bursting from a small black box, with  octopus arms juggling all sorts of different tech.

It’s the Mastervoice “Butler in a Box,” and  it was billed as “The world’s first artificial   intelligent environmental control system  for the home.” It can also call up to 16   different people, provide home security,  and do it all in 4 different languages. It’s supposed to make everything around your  home simpler, but it ends up generating more   questions than answers. How does  it work without wifi, bluetooth,  

or the internet? If this was such a breakthrough  technology, why did it fade into total obscurity?   Who invented this – and why is he a professional  magician who owned a 7-11 at the age of 21 and   had a world champion Frisbee-catching dog  and also made a cannon to feed fish from   a submarine – and why does his YouTube channel  have videos of his involvement in a MURDER TRIAL? You’ll get a glimpse of  its one-of-a-kind inventor,   Gus Searcy – and you’ll also see if I can  get this thing to work. That was my first   challenge… is it even possible to acquire  a Butler in a Box that functions today? Amazingly I found one on eBay that appeared  to be in mint condition – including the one   critical part that’s missing almost all the time  and totally bricks the device. I cracked open the   decades-old thick styrofoam shell and found a  nearly-indecipherable 134-page Owner’s Guide,   the 3” x 9” x 11” Butler in a Box – which is  roughly the size of a PS4 – something called   an “appliance module,” a lamp minder, a training  cassette and a standard RJ-45 phone jack and cord. I don’t have a landline… and I  don’t even have a cassette player. At least everyone had both of those in  the 1980s – but the dream of technology   that magically responds to your voice  commands goes back centuries. Ali Baba   triggered the door-opening mechanism  of the 40 Thieves’ den just by saying,   “Open Sesame” – that folk tale is at  least 300 years, and probably a lot more.

As the industrial world worked to  apply Newtonian physics to technology,   the dreamers still dreamed. In 1911, Hugo  Gernsback detailed the “Luminor” system in   his science fiction novel “Ralph 124C  41+” – Luminor used voice commands to   turn on and adjust the intensity of lighting,  just like Alexa-controlled WiFi bulbs do now. By the 1960s, the Jetsons had a  robot maid that interacted with the   whole family, Captain Kirk interfaced  seamlessly with the USS Enterprise,   and a Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic  computer terrorized Dr. David Bowman – HAL-9000.

But even into the 80s, the prospect of a  voice-operated assistant still seemed like   magic – and when magician Gus Searcy kept  dealing with people asking why he could   pull a rabbit out of a hat but couldn’t  turn on the lights without getting up,   he decided to invent a device that could. Or…   that’s his official story, which also includes  citing the 1977 sci-fi horror film “Demon   Seed,” in which a fully-automated home is  controlled by an artificial intelligence   that forcefully impregnates its owner, as  a direct inspiration for Butler in a Box. If that seems unconventional… so is Gus. His  backstory is wild: he claims that at age 16,   his parents signed over power of attorney to  him so that he could play the stock market,   and he was earning six figures. At 19 he owned  a condo in California, and at 21 he became the  

youngest owner of a 7-11 franchise in the world.  Gus is still alive – he invented the ShowerMi$er,   a water-saving solution for RVs, wrote a  motivational book, and worked for a legal   services subscription company – that was where  he became deeply involved in a murder trial. So what’s real? What’s not? I don’t know?   But the Butler in a Box does have a  listing on the Smithsonian website. So I got a tape player – and then I had to search  “cell phone landline adapter” to find this thing   that acts as a bluetooth go-between for your  smartphone and an old-style home phone connection. It’s easy to connect stuff now  – but how did a voice-activated   home automation system work a decade  before the world wide web went public,   14 years before WiFi, and 16 years  before Bluetooth was even available? Carrier current and the X10 protocol  for electronic communication.

Basically, a microprocessor in the Butler  sends a series of pulses through the electrical   wiring of the house, which are then read by  modules that lamps and appliances plug into,   and those are each assigned a  specific house code and unit code. I’ve got a lamp here, and this is my goal for the  Butler – I want to be able to turn this lamp on   and off just with my voice. So I plug the lamp  into a lamp module, plug that into the socket,   manually turn the lamp on and leave it on, then  set the house code dial to something like A and   the unit code dial to, say, 1. Then you log the  information that device 1 is a lamp assigned to A1   in the setup form in the back of the manual as a  reminder before you spend the required 25 minutes   training the Butler to recognize your voice, with  the help of the included training cassette tape,   which literally plays the Beverly Hills  Cop theme song “Axel F” in the background.

Which I SERIOUSLY doubt Mastervoice licensed. And then you designate a specific  phrase like “LAMP” so the Butler   knows you’re referring to Device  1 which is set to lamp module A1. That’s the easy part. I plugged in my Butler In A Box and turned  it on, which was a huge win – there was no   guarantee that an obscure 40 year old piece of  tech was going to power up. There’s a 16-digit   alphanumeric vacuum fluorescent display, and that  works great. So then I just had to program it. And to do that, you need that critical bit  of information that for almost all of the   surviving Butlers in a Box has been lost:  the four digit alphanumeric pin. It’s meant  

to be a security measure – it’s located on the  inside cover of the owner’s guide and you cannot   change it. If you lose it? No pin, no butler  – the box is locked forever. CelGenStudios on   Youtube has been trying to reverse engineer  the pin to his Butler In A Box for 8 years. But I’ve got my pin: #S93K. So how  do I input it? If you guessed “talk   to it,” because this is a cutting edge  voice-activated device, you guessed wrong. It turns out there’s a hidden pressure-sensitive  keyboard flap that folds out of the front bottom   of the Butler. But it’s actually laid out  like an old alpha-numeric keypad, not a QWERTY   keyboard – and here are the verbatim instructions  on how to input that pin to unlock the device: “To enter information requiring letters  of the alphabet, you would use the Alpha   Select mode of operation… The last three  keys, top row at right, are Alpha 1,   Alpha 2, and Alpha 3 (see figure 6-2). These  three keys have two functions each. First,  

in the Alpha Select mode of operation, these  keys will permit you to choose which letter   on the number keys 1 through 0 will be entered  into your unit. The three small squares above the   thick line correspond to the sequence of alphabet  letters above the thick line on the number keys. Example: Alpha Select Key 1, with the solid  square in the first of three possible positions,   allows you to select the letter A, the  first letter selection on Key 2. Alpha   Select Key 3, with the solid square in  the third of three possible positions,   allows you to select the letter C, the  third letter selection on Key 2, and so on.”

AND SO ON, INDEED. I’m pretty used to translating poorly-written  instructions with cheap Amazon electronics,   but how was anyone but the most hardcore  tech enthusiast expected to navigate 134   pages of this decades before average people  were even used to using home computers? “And that in the future, most people will have  a computer system right next to their TV.” It’s kafkaesque, and the whole thing seriously  tested my patience before I even discovered what   was broken on this thing – but before we  do that – you need to know what this cost.

Gus Searcy started talking in  public about the Butler in 1983,   and he said the ‘commercial applications of the  Butler would be staggering’ – he also recognized   that a voice-activated home control device  could be seriously useful for the elderly   or someone with a disability. He was right about  that part, but he was wrong about the price tag. In 1983, his target price was about $300 –  half of the initial price of the Commodore   64 and twice the price of the first  NES a couple years later. In 1984,   he said $500 – this 1985 ad listed it for  $1,195. By the time Jim Schefter tested the   Butler in 1987 and wrote about it  in Popular Science, it was $1,495.

We’re not done. A 1990 episode of The Home Show announced it  was $3,000, which became $4,000 by the year   2000 – adjusted for inflation, it started out as  a $940.94 device that became a $7,268.86 device…   and that’s including only two modules,  one for a lamp and one for an appliance.

Every single device in your home required its  own module, so if you maxed out your whole   house with 62 more modules at $36 each  – for your coffee makers, TVs, radios,   VCRs, alarms, electronic curtains, garage door,  sprinklers, thermostat, fish tanks and pool pumps,   whatever – you’re nearing $10,000 in today’s  dollars… and you also needed microphones and   speakers in every single room, and an electrician  to install those and whatever in-wall modules. For this Butler to work on more than just a lamp  and a TV in your living room, it was… $15,000? And one of the most amazing things to me as I  was researching Butler In A Box is that for more   than 20 years it was announced over and over  again as a magical, futuristic, life-changing   technology culminating with a feature  on Extreme Home Makeovers in 2005. Alexander? Did you call? laughter HOW? How did it stay futuristic  for two decades while pretty much   every other piece of tech got a  lot better and a lot cheaper!? Well, speech and voice recognition was  actually a really hard nut to crack – in 1952   Bell Laboratories’ “AUDREY” was able to recognize  each of the digits 0 through 9, but with only 90%   accuracy – and the only guy who could use it was  its inventor. By the 1970s, the Defense Advanced  

Research Projects Agency – DARPA – was funding  research to improve on the limitations of the two   basic recognition models at the time: trying to  match spoken words to pre-recorded waveforms, or   using a series of algorithms to create a ‘score’  that matched with a pretty good guess at the word. When Gus Searcy was touting his miracle Butler,  the rest of the industry was working with Hidden   Markov Models, like the earliest Dragon  Dictate software – it was another 20 years   before DARPA’s research broke enough ground  for Siri to translate your voice into a code,   which was then matched with patterns and  keywords, all in different tones and accents,   so that it can determine and carry out a  specific action, and continually collect   and process information to get  better at all of it over time. Okay. Wait. So if devices at the time struggled  to process ONE language, how was the Butler in a  

Box able to understand four separate languages?  Well, it didn’t. I mean, it did, but it didn’t. The Butler could handle voice commands from  four separate users, but every user had to   program it individually. So if I’ve programmed  it for me, my wife can’t say, “Turn Lamp On” and   have it work unless she has programmed it for her  voice, too, with exactly the same phrases that I   used. Except for naming the Butler. She would  have to name it something else. So if I named   “Jeeves” she would have to name it “Godfrey”  or something else, “Beyonce” it didn’t matter. Because the Butler in the Box isn’t  Siri or Alexa. It doesn’t know anything,   and it can’t really learn, either.

But it can respond to four distinctly-programmed  sets of sounds. That can be Japanese, or Klingon,   or The Black Speech of Mordor. You  could even make up your own language   just to use with the Butler. It can’t  tell the difference, since it doesn’t   know anything – that technically means it can  know everything. Or at least 4 of everything.

Alright, let me tell you what’s broken. So I plugged it in and got this awful crackling  sound – that was supposed to be the Butler saying   “Hello.” So alright, the speaker is broken – I  could bypass that by plugging in an external set   of old computer speakers. And I got… THE SAME  BROKEN CRACKLE SOUND. Whatever. I moved on with   the setup, did the microphone test, and got NO  response at all and realized that Jeeves here may   be dead. I took it down to my Dad’s shop, he knows  audio electronics and circuitry, so I thought  

maybe he could take it apart and solder some loose  connections or something. This was the something. He turned it over and showed me  the volume slider for the speaker,   which was turned all the way to 0. So we raised  the volume, plugged it in, and heard “HELLO.” They call that “USER ERROR.” I’m user. There was a microphone sensitivity slider  set to 0, too – so I assumed that would   fix my mic problem. The Butler has a  visual indicator that shows asterisks   to display how well your mic is working. And  my mic wasn’t working. I got zero asterisks. The internal microphone WAS broken.  I ordered a karaoke mic with a jack  

adapter and that kinda worked – then stopped  working. At that point we brought in the big   guns. My dad called his electronics wizard  friend, Neal, who took it apart, cleaned up   the mic jack and sliding potentiometers,  fixed a cracked board and saved the day. SIDENOTE: While Neal had it in his shop,  he tested its power usage and was blown   away. It turns out this draws a  constant 23 watts in standby. To  

put that in perspective it’s up to 11 ½  times an Alexa or the equivalent of 110   hours of Playstation gaming per month. Just  sitting there. Racking up your electric bill. Now. I read in a few places that setting up  the voice control was going to take SEVERAL   hours… but I actually trained my Butler  to do the basics in 25 minutes. I taught  

it to recognize my voice by speaking a series  of 10 specific words, like Air Conditioner,   Mood Lighting, and Airplane. You  can then program up to 10 commands,   18 commands to call 16 different people, set  4 alarm words, and train 32 device words. But I just did LAMP.

And like I said you can the Butler anything  you want – that name is the “Entry Word” to   wake up the Butler. So, to get it  to work, it’s your Butler’s name,   then tying a specific device to the command  you’re about to give – like, Jeeves, Lamp, On. Then you just have to test whether it or  not all that actually works. If it does,   you press YES. If your voice commands don’t work,  you press NO, and then re-train it until they do.

And multiply most of that whole process  by THIRTY-TWO to max out the Butler’s   devices. And make that 128 times  to set up all 4 different users. And then it can all just… disappear. Because I haven’t told you the worst  part, the Butler In A Box kryptonite… What happens if the power goes  out is the most depressing,   defeating aspect of this entire device – really  worse than the PIN. If there’s a power outage,   the backup batteries will preserve the  Butler’s memory – all the device programming,   all the voice programming – for 3 hours.  After that? It’s gone. It’s all gone.

It was possible to change the battery clip  cable to accept a 9-volt battery that lasted   for 10 hours, and it was possible to back up the  programming memory – NONE of the voice training   – to a home computer using an RS-232 port, which  was even more complicated than any of the setup. The reality is if a storm knocked out power for  more than a few hours, your Butler – Alfred,   Jeeves, Godfrey, Lurch, Geoffrey, whatever  you decided to name him – was dead. In that 1987 article, Jim Schefter concluded that  “the Butler in a Box is for the gadget freak,   the computer buff, and the handicapped,”  noting that Gus Searcy himself compares   the device to “a slightly-deaf 80  year old man.” Jim suggested that   it wasn’t uncommon to have to  repeat yourself 2 or 3 times. So… did the Butler in a Box  work? Yeah. yeah it really did. “You again? I’m home. Alright wait a minute.”

Y’know we’re used to driving  in comfort on the highway,   and the Butler in a Box is a horse  and buggy – but it’ll get you there. Early technology is just usually really messy  – sometimes it’s not good to be first. In 1937,   Jan Romein called the phenomenon “Wet van  de remmende voorsprong” – economists call   it the “First Mover Disadvantage.” – because  a promising product or idea tends to become   a canary in the coalmine for competitors,  who then solve those problems and achieve   success. They’re free riders as you take  all the damage from blazing the trail. It’s why you might have an Amazon Alexa in your  room, or Apple’s Siri in your pocket – and why   you definitely don’t have a Mastervoice  Butler in a Box in your living room. You’ve never even heard of this. Not  only does it not have a wikipedia page,  

it’s not a footnote on the pages for  Home Automation or Virtual Assistant. This isn’t a tech video. It’s a ghost story. There’s a reason why so many of the  people who tend to do things first   are eccentric – they’re the ones  who are willing to take the risks,   or sometimes they just don’t care about the  consequences. The more rational people wait  

to improve on a product or to address  the concerns of its early adopters. But we needed gas street lamps to get to cheaper,  safer, better electric street lamps. We needed   an RS-232 port to get to USB-C. And we needed  Butler in a Box to get to the intuitive voice   assistants that, honestly, don’t even impress  us anymore – we’ve just come to expect them.

Because we need the eccentrics, and we need their  technology, even if it turns out to be flawed. Mr. Belvedere? May I help you?  Lamp. Okay. On. As you wish! See you in the future.

2024-03-09 03:31

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