by Selçuk Balamir | PhD researcher
“What’s a robot?” I asked during the first dinner of the Faber residency, as we were being served some traditional catalan dishes. The conversation had already flown through gender imbalance in tech, economics of educational investments, and the challenges of self-driving cars. Many connections have already been made with the introduction rounds, alongside the exquisite starters. An international team of programmers and roboticists had gathered to work on microBlocks, an visual coding language to control microboards for educational purposes. And yet I held my question until new terms like ‘creative technologies’ and ‘physical programming’ were suggested. “What’s a robot?” I wondered, anticipating the experienced educators surrounding me must be asked that question quite often. Does a washing machine count as a robot? Is it complexity, autonomy or intelligence that defines it? A robot, it turns out, is a combination of things. It is a machine that both senses and affects its environment based on a programmed ‘behaviour’ —another name for algorithm. Not a washing machine, then. At least not until they are thought to pick up dirty clothes from the floor and return them clean and folded into the wardrobe. As delightful desserts were served, I was already looking forward to learn more the upcoming week.
My morning writing poured down as generously as the morning rain; a beginning of a beginning, the first page of the introduction was down on paper, then up on the screen. The sunshine followed in the afternoon, which prompted me to go for a walk to the Costa de Pujou. The lush woods covering the hill were still smelling the rain, and a some volcanic rocks on a sunny clearance served as my temporary writing studio for a few more hours.
Meanwhile, the microBlocks team took over the conference room and started working; they had only a few days until Robolot would kick off, where they would showcase some concrete outcomes of their work to educators, students and robotics enthusiasts attending the conference. Tom and John revised the long wish list of objectives Bernat had assembled; then the whole team agreed on what to prioritise.
During dinner, flavours on our plates blended to the flavours in our conversations that took us around the world, through cultures and across politics: from Kurdish autonomy in Rojova to Amish communities in the US; from alternatives to factory farming to the prospects 3D printed guns; the Hungarian mathematician Rózsa Péter (“founding mother of recursion theory”) to diversity of dialects in our respective countries. Some worked a little more into the night, while I dreamt of the woods.
The day started with some new developments for the microBlocks team. They had originally intended a workshop where participants would make their own robots. It turns out they had only an hour per session, which meant they needed to already have a working robot to tinker with. The other update: they were scheduled to visit some schools on Friday, leaving them with even less time to get everything ready. The news motivated everyone to get busy right away after breakfast. At the conference room, people were behind their screens coding away indecipherable strings and Tom started assembling what would become Rozsa, the rabbit-robot-mascot of microBlocks.
It was another rainy day with a dramatic thunderstorm, which gave me great focus to my writing. Hours went by effortlessly and I found myself reaching my writing goals as the skies cleared. I seized the opportunity to grab one of the bikes and venture towards the famous Fageda d’en Jordà, the beech forest that grows on top of the ancient lava flow. Once again I had a breathtaking backdrop to work a little more, until dinner time brought us all back together. Over two hours, we tackled the most serious of topics (from dystopian impressions from Dubai to hope and fear in face of climate catastrophe) as well as the lightest of laughters (from surprising character differences among siblings to awkward lobster accidents at dinner parties). Clearly, geeks aren’t at all only interested in technologies, but are passionate about a rich array of matters! After such an overwhelming day, the rest of the night was well-deserved spotless tranquility.
This one was a less of a successful and pleasant day… It rained pretty much all day, and yet this time my writing didn’t flow as abundantly. It is unsurprising, considering that I am dealing with one of the hardest challenges: to define what I mean by design. I may have not written much, but I took some daring decisions to move a few sections around and even to change the title of the thesis.
Meanwhile, microBlocks team was also running into difficulties. A bug they thought would be easily solved took their entire day; it was merely 50 lines of code, but it was well hidden from the eyes looking to crush them. Luckily, having roboticists and developers conveniently sitting across the same table made it possible to wrap their objectives; even the Catalan localisation of the programming language was ready, just in time for the outreach.
By the end of the day, everybody was exhausted, but the satisfaction of getting work done made everyone even more pleasant. People shared their experiences with fasting, updates on the situation of Catalan political prisoners, knowledge on the Long Depression of 1873-96, and insights on cruelty-free salvaging of honey from bee hives. Of course, these are only the topics I could follow; those related to programming were almost in a foreign language to me, and I can only imagine how exciting the exchanges on robotics take place in Olot these days.
Today was a big day for many people in the residency. Francesc was receiving official visitors from universities and municipalities interested in Faber. The microBlocks team was visiting two primary schools to present their work, where they were met with inquisitive kids with some hard questions: “How do you feel about robots taking over your jobs?” “What do you actually do for a living?” “Can computers have emotions?” “Are robots smarter than humans?” Carrying big smiles with the enthusiasm they received from the kids, they headed to visit la Fageda, which was a well deserved break. The only unpleasant development of the day was the traffic ticket they got as they went through a small town too fast!
Meanwhile, I was ready to put back together the draft I had radically pulled apart the previous day. My location of choice was Montsacopa, the crater of the volcan right overlooking Olot. It worked formidably! It is almost half of my time in Olot, and I have the first half of my introduction written, as well as a detailed outline for the second half, which I am intending to wrap up before leaving. The dinner debates —which lasted over 3 hours this time— tackled some themes dear to technology enthusiasts; the history of the mechanical turk, technological unemployment, killerbots, possibility of a robot uprising and the “untold history of Arduino”.
To top it all, we had a delightful presentation of Ana’s work. At the intersections of fine arts, interaction design and data visualisation, her expansive interests are hard to capture by text alone. Among her full-sized sculptures and marionettes, some are cast in ceramic, others have robotic motion, but all come with an uncanny twist. Her interest in coding not only enables her to harness big data troves with impressive interfaces, but helps her deliver sophisticated and elegant forms of cultural research and commentary. We were all spellbound by her work, and thankful to the unexpected encounters that Faber has been facilitating.
The grand opening day of Robolot had finally arrived. Small drama in the morning, just before the live demo: the HDMI cable was missing, delaying the presentation for a while. Luckily, the problem solved thanks to a participant with the right adaptor. Surprisingly, the audience was not particularly reactive during the talk, but they all showed excitement and enthusiasm personally the rest of the day. The diversity of workshop participants was striking for the microBlocks team; they were educators of all ages, a third of them women, even families with kids had joined them. The interest in robotics, we concluded, must be a successfully popular affair in Catalan education —everybody wished it would be the same back home.
Here’s what I understood from the presentation at Robolot conference: based on Scratch, Snap! is a visual programming language that constitutes the basis for the microBlocks platform, with parallel processing, live coding and modular blocks as key features. microBlocks supports a variety of microcontroller boards as well as languages. It’s a bit like Arduino, but nicer: intended for educational purposes, everything you assemble on the computer runs live on the controller board, and even keeps running when it’s not attached directly. It provides an intuitive, friendly, easy environment which considerably demystifies robotics for educators as well as the children. I wish we had such things when I was a kid!
At the end of the day, a sense of accomplishment was shared by everyone. The end of microBlocks team’s residency approaching, we shared personal stories of what brought us here. We heard the whole, legendary backdrop story of John’s involvement with eToys, Squeak and Scratch, mainly told through the excellent storytelling talents of Jens. I learned about the TIOBE Index which lists programming languages by popularity. I learned how technology became a male-dominant field only after the 80s, due to the ‘engineering turn’ of software development. I learned about Smart Citizen Kit and Mozilla’s open IoT protocol. What an enriching week it has been, full of unexpected learnings and exchanges.