Big day at Modular Robotics yesterday. We were scrambling to make some last minute preparations for the evening’s Cubelets Hackathon when the Internet 2012 Bus Tour rolled up. The red and blue bus just started a two week trip across the country to raise awareness for net neutrality. It’s organized by Reddit, and is actually McCain’s old campaign bus. It’s been re-wrapped, as you can see, and we assume cleaned out very well. Anyway, Alexis and Erik were on board, along with about ten members of the press and various other interesting people from AgLocal, AdWeek, and the Internet Association.
We played with Cubelets, walked around our factory, and talked a little about how crazy it is to think about manufacturing consumer electronics in the USA these days. We ate little cheese Cubelets, drank coconut water, and had some fun with the Rally Fighter, Local Motors‘ short-run, semi-custom, community designed car.
Why did the bus decide to stop at Modular Robotics? It turns out that they just asked around for the coolest company in town and found us. Awesome. But there’s a deeper synergy at work here that might not be apparent at first glance.
Cubelets are the building blocks of intelligent systems. But we’re taking a huge departure from the way the field of artificial intelligence has worked for the last 60 years. Normal artificial intelligence is “top down.” We write programs for robots telling them to do one thing, then another, then wait for something, etc. Instead of writing a big fat complicated program for a robot, Cubelets are “bottom up”. Their behavior emerges from lots of little simple robots each doing their own thing. The magic happens when they all get together and we see things like steering or intentional-looking behaviors like wall avoidance or alarm-sounding just sort of happen.
This is kind of how the Internet works too: it’s a tremendously huge system that relies on many, many users and devices and programs to run, and it gives rise to all sorts of higher-level emergent elements (like bullying or social networking or SETI@Home) that couldn’t happen without all of the complexity at its base.
The thing is, it’s really hard to make positive changes in a huge complex system from the top-down. Yes, we’d all like artists to make a buck, and yes, we’d all like movies to keep getting made, but we can’t get there with ham-fisted approaches like SOPA or PIPA. We can’t put the future of the internet into a few senators’ hands who don’t even have a clear idea of what it is or how it works.
We need a more nuanced approach to solving problems in complex systems. Instead of letting the RIAA dictate the rules, we need to look a little deeper and understand how and why patterns emerge in complexity and how even tiny changes can have ripple effects. This is what Cubelets were designed for: to give kids a model to build their own complex systems and start to develop intuitions about how the world works. To see that real solutions are not black or white, red or blue, but require research, critical thinking, and understanding.
Well. We had a lot of fun with the merry pranksters on the bus. Thanks for coming! Here’s my favorite tweet about the Bus Tour’s visit to Modular Robotics.