Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pop Up Thinglab 30: MAKE ROBOT ... But Where Are Our Flying Cars?

Pop Up Thinglab 30  was a MAKE:ROBOT Mindstorms Thinglab for children 9 to 14 years of age in the new Lab Central at Redbridge Central Library.

We started with an introduction to robots - their past, present and future, their place in popular culture and their impact on work and our world. We spoke about technology development over the years ... how some of the things imagined in science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s have become real and common place, how many things we have today could have been science fiction in the past but weren't even imagined. Today we have flat screen TVs and not just mobile phones but smartphones and the Internet. Today we have self driving robot cars but where are the flying cars that were predicted? 

The idea of flying cars really got the children engaged .. we had an incredibly long, detailed and knowledgeable discussion about transport - electric cars, self driving cars, flying cars, public transport, economics, society, infrastructure and the environment. The children showed a natural awareness of broader issues related to technology ... we could have talked all day about whether technology makes our lives better or not, about fairness and equality, about pollution and about how technology is connected and dependent on so many other things. The children spoke about how you can't just have electric cars but need a supporting infrastructure to charge them. The children spoke about and how you can't have flying cars but need a supporting infrastructure of health and safety rules and regulations. A major concern the children had was about the pollution and environmental impact of technology and they spoke about how unfair it is that someone can use a flying car for their own advantage but leave pollution for everyone.

We spoke about how the car shaped and polluted the environment in 20th century and about how it can be regarded as a symbol of the industrial age. We spoke about how cars shaped our built environment and how we built our environment around them ... we spoke particularly about city congestion, noise, pollution and the number of cars parked unused everyday cluttering up our streets. We spoke about how electric driverless cars might become a symbol of the information age and how they might shape our future environment - imagining that our streets can be quieter and more peaceful places for people again and that you don't need to own a car ... you can just summon it when needed and so our streets can become safer and open again.

We spoke about the origins of the word robot - how Karel Čapek used the word to describe manufactured factory workers in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) and how the it comes from from Slavic languages with the meaning labourer, worker and figuratively drudgery or hard work (robota, roboti). 

The origin of the word robot comes from work and we had a very meaningful discussion about the impact of robots on work in the future. While robots have until now relieved us of many dangerous, boring and repetitive jobs it looks likely that robots and artificial intelligence will start to 'relieve us' of more "intellectual" jobs and skills - especially those with which are process and rule based with known and measurable outputs. In the information age it looks likely that it will be information processing jobs that might be automated - many of the jobs which are regarded as professional, middle class and well paid - jobs in finance, law and insurance for example. 

We had a discussion about what things might be difficult to automate and the type of skills that would be valuable for people to have in the future and what might be worth investing in today. The children could see that robots were best at repetitive things that can be programmed, that robots have no imagination and how being imaginative and creative would be important skills for people in a future full of robots.

We had a look at examples of machine learning ... how robots can learn without programming but by trial and error ... much like people can and finished the discussion talking about the risks and benefits of this and just who would be responsible for a robots actions if the robot had learned to carry out those actions by itself.

The future is their life ... the children were naturally super interested in topics about the future.

For people of such a young age they weren't just accepting of new technology but were able to engage critically with not just the tech but the broader social, ethical, environmental, economical and philosophical issues.

We then turned to practical issues ..  making and programming robots.

Teams go head to head in a MAKE:ROBOT race
People learn in different ways - some of the children wanted to work together through a guided robot build while others wanted to jump in and free-style - working out how to make the robot from the "Ikea" style diagrams. The robot model we were using is very quick and easy to make and our racing teams both made the robot in exactly the same time - 6.59 minutes from scratch ... opening the robot kit, laying and ordering the parts and making sense of the diagram.

Programming a robot to draw is the most popular activity in our robot workshops - our tangible programming app together with our 3D printed pen attachment means that children can make a robot, have it move about and draw in as little as 10 minutes.

Look at what we programmed our robot to draw

We programmed our robot to draw a square
We programmed our robot to draw a rectangle
 We programmed our robots to have a drawing duel 
So far the children had been programming robot actions ... robot outputs, so we introduced some robot sensors so that the children could consider robot inputs. The most popular sensor was the infrared sensor (radar) that the children could use to make their robots detect distance and program their robots responses e.g. how far away to detect an object, to move away or towards an object and how fast to move. 

Here's looking at you .. the infra-red sensors were very popular

We finished with robot wars - the mobile whiteboard we had been using for drawing became a battlebot arena for the children's robots to do battle in two, three and four way battle fests.

Four-Way Battlefest
Our roboteers

See all the photos from Pop Up Thinglab 30 here

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