Robert Doornick’s robots won’t walk up to you and say, “Greetings, human. Take me to your leader.” He avoids this predictable language and behavior, he says, preferring to use the element of surprise to get your attention and friendliness and humor to win your heart. Robot Millennia may well compliment your hair, tell you your eyes sparkle like diamonds, and ask you to dance. Most people, rather than retreating at the flirtatious behavior—as many would do with a human stranger—laugh and enjoy it when it comes from his robots. “That’s important whether you’re trying to entertain people, sell them a car or vacuum cleaner, educate them, or heal them,” Doornick says, and his robots are used for all of those purposes.
International Robotics Inc., Robert Doornick’s company, has its world headquarters in Larchmont. It can supply you with the latest in programmable friends and coworkers. If budgets are tight, the robots can be rented, but, if there’s a few hundred thousand dollars at your disposal, you can buy a SICO-series robot like Millennia and have him customized. Millennia, who was on the cover of a recent Hammacher Schlemmer catalog, is the first non-human actor to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild, under his stage name, Robot SICO. He has an extensive list of film and TV credits, including a role in the movie Rocky IV, which was written in specifically for him by Sylvester Stallone. The robot was a cast member for a season on the NBC soap Days of Our Lives, and appeared on an episode of MTV’s Punk’d with Hilary Swank. He entertained at a White House dinner in the Reagan administration, appeared at a comedy club, and hosted the Spanish Music Awards with an audience of 12 million viewers, among many other things. He travels first class on airplanes.
Doornick, the founder and president of the company, is usually the voice of Millennia, and he writes his own material. “The shortcoming of most programmable artificially intelligent robots these days is that AI programs are restricted and predictable,” he says. “The beauty of Millennia is that it has more programmability and remote-controlled features, so it’s as entertaining as you want it to be.” He describes an appearance at an engineering conference, where he controlled Millennia via invisible, wearable remote control technology: “I was in the audience. At the appropriate moment I sent a command to Millennia, who was backstage behind the curtains, to pull the curtains, go to the center of the stage, and deliver the entire keynote address, including body movements. It eventually introduced me as the next speaker and its creator. I came onstage and we began to have a two-way conversation.”
“I was born on a stage, practically,” Doornick says. His parents owned several highly successful nightclubs in Paris in the 1940s and ’50s, and although he was too young to see the shows, he was quite used to being surrounded by entertainers. “My parents befriended major celebrities like Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin,” he says. “Charles Aznavour got his start at my father’s nightclub.” The experience made him used to “going onstage without too many butterflies.”
As a youngster, Doornick had even greater loves than show biz: science and technology, psychology and quantum physics. “I devoured books in these fields,” he says. Long before computers and robots actually existed, he saw a cartoon of a giant robot who’d been created by an evil scientist. The cartoon robot wanted to hurt people, and young Doornick decided that when he grew up, he’d make kinder robots, “robots that help people.” But “people would very quickly advise me to stop dreaming about impossible science fiction stuff and concentrate more on becoming a doctor or scientist or physicist, or a bus driver, more conventional, traditional, and predictable careers.”
In the 1960s, he came to the United States from France (with his sister, Marie-Christine, who now handles International Robotics’ finances) and attended New York University, studying communication psychology, marketing, and computer programming. Studying psychology, he says, “was a way to better understand the human mind and how people relate to the world.”
He wanted to understand people and the interaction between people and machines in order to program human-like behavior into the machines. As a child, he says, he wasn’t a very good student, and might have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He was bored with school, and felt his teachers didn’t understand that. “I was fortunate to be raised by parents who gave my sister and me a wonderful life with lots of toys and wonderful adventures,” he says. “My suspicion was that students who did not fare well in school were, on many occasions, simply not motivated and interested. When you take a child—a child who’s exposed to so much information through tablets and computers and smart phones—and tell them to just sit in a square room with a blackboard in front of them, many of these students end up having attention deficit, and unfortunately many of them end up being medicated. I thought by creating technologies that were interactive, we could help.”
He started his first company developing this sort of technology in 1968. “I demonstrated that those students could do extremely well, because I could motivate them to want to learn,” he says.
Eventually he was able to build his first robot, and use his show-biz and psychology expertise to determine how the robots should behave. “They should be extremely entertaining,” he says, “and bond easily with any age, social, ethnic, or cultural group.” Their physical appearance grew out of his memories of reading comic books and watching cartoons. “All evil characters had beady eyes and straight edges, and sharp features, which helped to identify them as bad guys. The good guys were designed with lots of curves, such as Mickey Mouse, with larger eyes, and soft features. So I knew how to design robots that would be likeable. Short robots turned out to be unsuccessful, because people found them toy-like. They had to be a little tall, perhaps a couple of inches taller than the average human, and intentionally a little frightening as it walked into the room. Then the personality had to be very gentle and sweet and compassionate, with lots of virtues that human beings respect.”
International Robotics came to Larchmont, after 30 years in Manhattan, when the company needed more space. Doornick moved the company to a location near the French restaurant his family owned at the time, Pascal’s. He has a shop, a warehouse, and office space in Larchmont, and the production takes place in Michigan. He has representatives in France, the Middle East, India, and Asia. Robot Millennia recently met and reportedly delighted the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, the king and queen of Jordan, and many other dignitaries.
International Robotics is well represented in amusement parks and museums, with “anthrobots,” or anthropomorphic robots, at places such as Six Flags amusement parks, Disney parks, and museums of science and technology. The company also provides “robotic performers,” humans inside a robot costumes that have remote-controlled sound and special effects. “I kept my [childhood] dream alive,” Doornick says, “and technology eventually caught up.”