Inside The Genius, But Asocial Elevator's Brain Last week, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took the title for the world's tallest building. Visitors to the observation deck ascended 124 floors in less than a minute, breaking records for speed. Most remarkable, however, was what passengers neither felt or saw: an ultra-high-tech elevator brain able to predict human behavior with eerie precision.
NPR logo

Inside The Genius, But Asocial Elevator's Brain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Inside The Genius, But Asocial Elevator's Brain

Inside The Genius, But Asocial Elevator's Brain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: If you visit the new tallest building in the world in Dubai, you can experience something that sounds like an amusement park ride. On the elevators at the Burj Khalifa, you can zoom up to an observation deck 124 floors high in less than a minute. That breaks records for elevator speed.

As NPR's Heather Murphy reports, these are unusually high tech elevators.

HEATHER MURPHY: What does it feel like to travel more than 30 feet a second?

Mr. KEVIN SCOTT (Reporter, Gulf News): You know, it's just like when you're taking off in a plane. My ears were constantly popping so you're having to, you know, yawn or take deep breaths. But apart from that, I think you are aware that it is going fast, but it's very smooth.

MURPHY: That's Kevin Scott, a reporter for the Gulf News. He says the Otis-designed elevators stole the show.

Mr. SCOTT: And it has, you know, built-in light and entertainment features, including LCD displays that play some quite dramatic music, which kind of reaches a crescendo just as the doors are opening at the top.

(Soundbite of music)

MURPHY: The most impressive aspect of the 57 elevators, however, relates to something no ones saw or heard: their brain.

Dr. LEE GRAY (Professor, University of North Carolina): It's the smartest brain now that we're using to control elevator traffic.

MURPHY: Dr. Lee Gray is a professor at the University of North Carolina who has been studying elevators for 20 years. He says the fundamental technology hasn't changed much since the '60s. Instead, engineers have been refining an algorithm used to control the flow of people through a building.

Dr. GRAY: You have to predict human behavior. In many instances, hundreds, or depending on the size of the building, maybe a thousand people, within a 15 to 20 minute time period enters the building and goes up to work.

MURPHY: People hate to wait, to such a degree that a lag of 30 seconds can hurt a business. So, the elevator's computerized brain has to figure out the optimal way to get everyone where they need to go.

Dr. GRAY: So, the math to sort out the traffic control and how quickly the elevators move and stop has become quite extraordinary.

MURPHY: This math is the cerebral cortex of the most advanced elevator systems. And it's working at its finest in a system called Destination Dispatch, which will be used in the busiest parts of Dubai's Burj Khalifa. Engineers say this is the future. But because Dubai is a bit far, I visited the new headquarters of Legg Mason in Baltimore, which has a similar system.

(Soundbite of scanning beep)

(Soundbite of footsteps)

MURPHY: In the lobby, you scan your employee badge, an LCD screen flashes which elevator to take.

Unidentified Female: Going Up.

MURPHY: It already knows where you're going, and the lift will only stop at your floor, often there aren't any buttons to push.

Unidentified Female: Twenty fourth floor.

MURPHY: And Schindler, another elevator company, says they're working on a cell phone app that will schedule a lift even before you've arrived in the building. Gone will be wait times, but also gone will be chance encounters with people from other floors.

Dr. GRAY: Many people in corporate settings use elevator rides for the so-called elevator pitch, or elevator talk, to pitch an idea, to talk to a colleague. Destination Dispatch could separate people who in the past might travel together.

Mr. KEITH MARSHALL (Elevator Operator): Eighth floor.

Mr. MARSHALL: Ocho. Okay, let's go to ocho floor, okay.

MURPHY: Social interaction is currently a key part of the elevator experience at the Hotel Lombardy in Washington, D.C.

Mr. MARSHALL: Oh, I see the - this is 8th floor, actually that - I just bring her off the floor.

MURPHY: Keith Marshall is one of the last truly manual elevator operators in the world. He's been driving the elevator for the past 30 years. In a few weeks, however, his job will become extinct as the lift becomes automatic.

Mr. MARSHALL: So, this is going to be gone. This is going to be all computerized.

(Soundbite of elevator door opening)

MURPHY: A buzzer rings, he pushes the letter, opens the gate.

Mr. MARSHALL: Hey, here you go.

MURPHY: But the woman has left and taken the stairs. She couldn't wait. Perhaps, she is accustomed to a more efficient, computerized elevator brain.

Heather Murphy, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Hacia del Aire")

SIEGEL: High tech doesn't always mean good tech. We learned over the weekend that 14 passengers got stuck in one of Burj Khalifa's elevators. To find out more, you can check out our All Tech blog at

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.