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Inventor of robot that gave Anne Arundel Community College commencement speech dies

Inventor of robot that gave Anne Arundel Community College commencement speech dies
Bill Bakaleinikoff of Petaluma straightens Robot Redford'’s tie following head surgery on the robot in Sunnyvale on Wednesday, April 28, 1983. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (File photo)

In a historic address covered by international media, Anne Arundel Community College’s 1983 commencement speaker warned graduates that technology was transforming the workforce — and urged them to be adaptable.

The speaker? A four-foot-tall, 175-pound white fiberglass robot with red eyes, a camera lens nose and a bow tie.

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Its name? Robot Redford.

“Today every man, woman and child has a relationship to computers," it said, according to The Washington Post. "But do you remember just a few decades ago when computers were controversial? Society has not always welcomed technological advances with open arms!"

Bill Bakaleinikoff, the robot’s energetic, fun-loving inventor, died after a three-year battle with kidney cancer on June 20, his wife said. The Half Moon Bay, Calif., resident was 75.

Delivering the robot’s speech — via a microphone from beneath the bleachers — was one of his fondest memories, said Ellen Chiri-Bakaleinikoff, his wife of 24 years.

“He just had a great time,” she said. “He was one of those people who was like the human equivalent of spring.”

William Paul Theriot Bakaleinikoff was born in Hollywood, California, on Nov. 11, 1942, to Yvonne, a dress maker, and Anthony Theriot, a mechanic who worked on Indianapolis 500 cars.

After the marriage ended, his mother later remarried, to orchestra conductor Mischa Bakaleinikoff, who adopted him and his brother, Tony.

A nature lover, Bakaleinikoff grew up surfing the Southern California coast. In his late teens he reconnected with his father, and the two discovered their shared love of cars and racing.

Bakaleinikoff served in the Marine Corps from 1962-68, then founded an advertising agency that helped promote the U.S. aerospace industry.

He moved in the 1970s to Northern California, where he enjoyed the live music scene and, after being seated behind a pillar at a show, created “Sit Where You Want,” a guide to major Bay Area concert venues.

Bakaleinikoff joined Advanced Robotics in the early 1980s to lead its in-house advertising and created Superior Robotics of America and Star Robots USA, where he developed the robot that would bring him international attention at Anne Arundel.

A graduating liberal arts major told The New York Times she thought the robot was cute, and the speech was meaningful and in good taste.

“I'll never forget this speech,'' the graduate, Margaret Cunningham, said. “You forget a political leader, but you won't forget a robot.”

But the reaction wasn’t all positive.

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“It raised eyebrows at the time,” Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said. “People seemed to be either delighted, shocked or displeased.”

More than a few students and faculty derided the move as a publicity stunt — especially once they heard that Bakaleinikoff, not the robot itself, would be delivering the speech.

"We'd really rather have had some politician up there, saying nothing, than a machine saying nothing," a math professor told The Post.

Bakaleinikoff didn’t mind courting a little controversy, though. He was the type who enjoyed pushing people to expand their thinking, and question the world around them, his wife said.

“He liked to engage people, to get the mental wheels turning,” Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said. “He wanted to get people thinking about it.”

The commencement wasn’t Robot Redford’s last public appearance. The “showbot,” as Bakaleinikoff called it, was invited to the 1996 Robot Wars Final in San Francisco.

But Bakaleinikoff refused to outfit his creation with spinning blades or a battering ram and enter it into the battle royale, Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said.

The robot, he emphasized, was “a lover, not a fighter.”

Instead of joining the fray, Robot Redford served as the greeter at the event. Bakaleinikoff and his wife watched from afar as people tentatively approached the robot.

“Do you speak?” one woman asked.

“Of course I speak,” Bakaleinikoff replied, through the microphone, and flashed Redford’s eyes.

The woman, clearly tickled, walked away and came back with a Robot Wars T-shirt for the robot. The robot insisted it wouldn’t fit.

“I don’t believe he ever actually got it on but it was pretty hilarious to watch,” Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said.

The couple later founded Chiri-Bakaleinikoff & Associates International, a firm that helped recruit sponsors for the No. 10 car in the Indianapolis Racing League.

That role scored Bakaleinikoff a promotional ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — a big deal to him, his wife said, especially given his father’s career as a race car mechanic.

Bakaleinikoff retired in 2000 and did charity work, volunteering as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army, his wife said.

“He had the biggest, greatest heart,” Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said. “He really was loved by a lot of people.”

So whatever became of Robot Redford?

Their son, David, recently discovered him in the couple’s basement, Chiri-Bakaleinikoff said.

“Robot Redford,” she said, “lives on.”

In addition to his wife and son, Bakaleinikoff is survived by son Mischa Bakaleinikoff, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; his daughter Whitney Bakaleinikoff, of Sedona, Ariz.; two sisters, Annie Bakaleinikoff, of Redding, Calif., and Penny Theriot Perigan, of Dandridge, Tenn.; and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

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