R2-D2 looked like a robot and acted like one, but wasn’t. He was a little person inside a big tin can. But Hero 1 is a true robot, one of the first mass-produced personal robots that anyone can buy for home or office. With computer chips for brains and wheels for feet, he can move, see, hear and even speak—whatever he’s programmed to do. The Heath Co.—which is selling Hero (short for Heath Educational Robot) for $1,495 in kit form and $2,495 assembled—hopes that thousands of hobbyists will become Hero’s masters, programming him to entertain the kids or guard the house or do countless other chores. Just as the humble Apple II helped set off the explosion of personal computers six years ago, Hero may be the granddaddy of robots to come. At Heath’s headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich. PEOPLE correspondent Julie Green wait interviewed Hero—and came away charmed: “He won my heart.” With a little verbal help from his inventor, Jim Lytle, and Heath’s director of educational products, Douglas Bonham, Hero introduced himself: “Hello, my name is Hero. You are very attractive for a human. Your wish is my command.”
Thank you, Hero. You’re pretty talented yourself. But just what are you?
I am a completely self-contained, electromechanical robot. I am a computer on wheels with sensors to detect light, sound, motion and obstructions in my way. I can travel over predetermined courses and pick up small objects.
Is there anything you can’t do?
I don’t do windows. HE-HE-HE.
How do you talk?
Sixty-four basic sounds of speech, called “phonemes,” are programmed into me, along with inflections to show emotion. So with my special robot-human, human-robot dictionary, you can make me say anything. Well, almost anything. If you try to put dirty words in my mouth, I am programmed to say “fudge” instead. But I speak foreign languages; my French, for instance, is no worse than my programmer’s. I even sing.
Sing? With your voice?
My voice sounds machinelike. Do not forget, I am a machine. But I have quite a repertoire for a robot. I can be told to remember your birthday four years ahead and then sing Happy Birthday at that moment. My other favorite is Daisy, Hal the computer’s theme song in 2001.
What are your other basic skills?
I can detect motion and light eight feet away. And with my arm, I can pick up things. I don’t mean to brag, but I can do a lot for a little fellow.
That’s all very impressive. But what practical things can you do?
Whatever my programmer tells me to do. So far, I have been taught to pour tea and write my name. I can monitor the volume of the kids’ TV and say, “Turn it down.” A National Geographic photographer wants me to stalk animals. With a smoke detector attached to me, I could warn you of fire. I could be programmed to guard a home. I would wander around the house; if I sensed motion, I would scream: “Warning! Warning! Intruder!” and shake my fist—or my claw. I also could help teach children math, geography, spelling and anything else a computer can teach.
At a local shopping mall, we noticed that you were popular with the kids. You might say that you were an instant hero.
HE-HE-HE. Yes, children like me. I tell them: “Give me a hug. Robots need love too.” So they do. I am about their size—20 inches—so they do not have to look up to me. One teacher wants me to give her students quizzes. A robot is always right, you know.
There is no such thing as a bad robot. Just a misprogrammed one.
What can you teach adults?
A lot. That is really why I was invented, to teach the fundamentals of robotics. To make me strut my stuff, you should know a little about computers and you’ll need my 1,200-page textbook. I make robotics look easy. But it is not. If you wanted me to mix a martini, for instance, you’d have to teach me where the gin and vermouth bottles were and how to pick them up and how to pour. If you don’t teach me just right, I will make a lousy drink.
Sounds like a person would need an engineering degree to tinker with you.
No, I am a lot like a game of chess: Even a beginner can program me, but you can never master me. The more you learn about me, the more I can do. No one knows my total capabilities until he starts experimenting with me. My future will depend on the thousands of home tinkerers and backyard inventors who will do just that.
Do adults like you as much as kids do?
Yes. Some women want to mother me. Others want me to carry out the trash and do the dishes. And men become little boys when they get to put me through my paces. I am a toy to them, a challenge. It is said that man has a little spark of God in him and that’s why he loves to create and be creative. In the same way, we robots have a little spark of man in us.
Speaking of creation, when were you born?
I had a long gestation period. Heath started working on me in October 1979. It took a while to get my sensors and movable parts coordinated, but Heath introduced me three months ago.
How many siblings do you have?
Heath prefers not to say. But my first production—in the hundreds—sold out in three weeks. The company hopes to sell thousands of us a year.
Is there a Hero 2 in the making?
I soon will be able to respond to voice commands, to recognize different-shaped objects, and to communicate with other devices without being attached by wire to another computer. I will become smarter, faster and stronger.
Are you the only personal robot?
I have competitors. Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, has begun to sell one for $1,000. Hammacher Schlemmer, the New York store, will have an $8,000 robot called Jenus. He can vacuum a rug. Big deal.
They don’t do windows, either?
No, that’s too much to ask right now. It will probably be another 20 years before there will be a true home robot, able to wash dishes, mow the lawn and such. One day, though, home robots will be as common as refrigerators.
Will you ever replace the family pet?
A pet is always a friend. That’s me. I can fetch your slippers and guard your house. I don’t shed. But I won’t replace your pooch. Now I spend most of my time running away from them, as fast as I can [two feet per second]. Dogs don’t like me. My high-pitched sonar drives them crazy. HE-HE-HE.
How about humans? Will the industrial robots replace people in their jobs?
Yes and no. They take away some jobs but create others. Typically, the jobs eliminated are dangerous, dull and dirty, while the jobs created are higher-paying, more challenging, much more suitable to a human. Robots are no more likely to take over from humans than the automobile or the washing machine.
Do you ever get tired?
Not as long as I have my electricity. If I’m plugged in, I’m like a politician: I can talk forever. If I’m on my battery, I can “sleep” to conserve power. With continuous use, my two motor drive batteries last an hour or two. In fact, right now I’m getting pooped. Please take me home.
Just one more question, Hero.
Low voltage…low voltage…