I didn’t grow up on Knight Rider. I was never obsessed with KITT. I never wanted a replica, but I did understand the fascination others had with the car that flew, and talked, and drove itself. How did it drive itself? Well, anyone familiar with the Mechanical Turk will like this.
The Mechanical Turk was one of the great hoaxes, a machine constructed in 1770 that could play and beat people at chess. In reality, it wasn’t a machine that played chess, it was an elaborate box with a person hiding inside it.
The Mechanical Turk was an actual object but it is also something of a catch-all term for anything that presents itself as a robot or computer or algorithm but is actually just a human doing work out of view. Amazon went mask-off when it called its crowdsourcing work app Mechanical Turk in the early ’00s, in which real people solve problems as a form of “artificial artificial intelligence,” as the New York Times explained.
I guess drones are another good example of a Mechanical Turk. You look at a drone. There’s no cockpit! It’s a more anodyne, cleaner kind of warfare. Actually, there’s still a pilot; they’re just in an air-conditioned room somewhere else, still a human pulling the trigger. That didn’t stop the government from calling them unmanned aircraft.
I am getting off track! I’ll stop before I start trying to make too many connections between military robotics, DARPA and driverless cars. Back to KITT.
Let’s take a look at this excellent scene pulled from Season 1, Episode 1 of Knight Rider, 1982’s Knight of the Phoenix:
Watching Knight Rider growing up, I assumed the driverless KITT scenes were some high-tech 1980s remote control.— ???????????????????? ???????????????????????????????????????? (@BryanPassifiume) December 6, 2020
Thanks to HD releases, we now know it was just a dude wearing a Trans Am seat cover pic.twitter.com/JSl1utiMSU
Let’s take a closer look at that human arm:
It’s brilliant! There’s no need to wire up some kind of full-size remote control car. All you need is a seat cover with some holes cut in it.
This of course popped up on a Fiero forum (where else?) all the way back in 2008, when viewers were first starting to rewatch the show on DVD and not on their childhood TV sets:
I can’t pull up the clip myself, but a quick google did turn up yet another fun example of Knight Rider’s editors not caring too much about a spare hand on screen:
Watching Knight Rider and I've just noticed, for some unknown reason, a hand pop out when Michael goes to shut the door.— Stuart M Bird (@t2stu) October 8, 2019
There is absolutely no know reason for this. pic.twitter.com/YdXwdjsPJY
It’s not that Knight Rider never had legit stunts, it’s just charming to see that the tricks of then work as the tricks of today. Our computers and robots are never as advanced as what our dreams imagine.