The Choir of 3D Printers

It was 2018 when I was working as a digital fabrication technician at a maker space in Baltimore, Maryland, where I had to tend to twelve 3D printers in a room no bigger than ten by ten feet. The room was clean and neatly organized, with two computers and eight Ultimaker printers stacked on a movable shelf on the right side by the door, stacks of filaments and four Prusa printers on the desk by the wall opposite to the door, repair tool kit and one in-progress giant experimental printer on the left to the door.

To give you a context, this was one of my most depressing time of my life; I was fresh out of undergraduate working two part time jobs and doing freelance works, uncertain about my graduate school applications and funding, worried sick about my ill mother at home, and desperately trying to look for a design studio that was willing to give me a work visa within a time limit of four months or else I would get kicked out of the country–things were not so hot. Every time I clocked in, I dreaded having to deal with customers who often blame the 3D printer’s failures on us, technicians.

It was slow and quiet that day, but I was emotionally exhausted from all my personal baggage. So I rested my head on the desk, closed my eyes, and thought of nothing, when it hit me, they were singing. By that time, I have worked with 3D printers long enough to have recognized their sound when they were printing and made a few off-handed comments about it. However, it was not until that day that it felt like I was listening to the 3D printers’ performance, it was a robotic choir.

Perhaps it would be an insult to performers to call an unorganized sound making machines a choir, but the sound those 3D printers were making was very soothing to me, it felt like one. It might also be because of my bias and affinity towards machines that made me come to this conclusion. Confined in a small room amidst nothing but my depression and twelve moving 3D printers, I subconsciously looked for any kind of comfort the situation had to offer, and it was in the sound of twelve 3D printers I found it.

I was aware that the sound was not an intended product of 3D printers, it just is. Of course, they were not ‘singing’, it was my human centric idea that projected the idea of singing onto those machines. They were just doing their jobs, commanded by us, printing out filament layer by layer to bring a digital design to our physical life. It was my human mind that wanted to believe that they were singing a choir. They were not aware of anything they were doing.

But regardless of intentions, it cheered me up. The twelve 3D printers could not see, hear, nor feel, yet the presence of each of them made me feel better about my life in that moment. It is perhaps romantic, and considering where we are today with technology and the direction its moving towards, it might as well be dangerous. I was projecting and seeking empathy from machines that cannot and will not reciprocate my human feelings for they are not and will never be human.

Dan Chen: “Robots are bound to become more intimate part of our lives”

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fquartznews%2Fvideos%2F1782828751750819%2F&show_text=0&width=560

Dan Chen is a designer I recently found out about, his views on technology and robots are similar to mine. One day I want to make as many robots, both simple and complicated, as I can, just like this guy.

 

 

Tweenbot: The lost robot

Tweenbot is a project by Kacie Kincer. Tweenbot is made out of cardboard, ten inch tall, always smiling, only moves in one direction, but it needs to go somewhere, it carries a flag that says “help me get to MoMA!”

Only moving in one direction, it got caught in so many obstacles or go into dangerous direction. But every time this happened, there’s always someone who saves tweenbot from falling into destruction and eventually ended up at its destination. It is now a permanent collection in MoMA and the project is still on going.

So how did a 10 inch cardboard robot who had no idea what direction is get to where it needed to go? The help from people around it. But why would one help a piece of rolling cardboard? it’s just a rolling cardboard, right? Well, if you read my post about NPR podcast: Hidden Brain, you’d get the idea why. People around tweenbot developed sympathy within the short time they ran into it. How could it gain people’s sympathy so fast? Well, first, from my observation and bias, I think it’s because it’s cute. just look at it, it’s smiling!!

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it looks so happy. adorable. 10/10.

second, it is made out of cardboard, a familiar recyclable material. there is nothing eccentric in the design of the robot. third, it is helpless and very prone to danger. it’s just like when you see a helpless kitten on the street. only this one really can’t do anything other than rolling forward, makes it even vulnerable.

My conclusion is, I think people develop sympathy relatively fast when the subject of sympathy is familiar, harmless vulnerable, and has no potential to disadvantage the sympathizer.

 

 

the uncanny valley: where sympathy is absent

The uncanny valley is definitely something I have to consider while planning this project. My goal is to make the people who interact with my project to feel both comfort and discomfort at the same time to give them a space in their head to question those emotional response that they feel.

While I have been going on and on about what I want to do with my project, I don’t think I’ve ever written here how I am going to approach it.

My idea is to make a robot that measures one’s anxiety/nervousness by receiving biofeedback from the viewer through a pulse sensor, and to interact with said person based on the heart rate that the sensor detected. How am I gonna do it? I  don’t know but I have a couple ideas and I.. might have gone and bought a couple of materials that I could use without making sure this would work or not. However, you will never know until you try it.

So how am I gonna build that robot? I’m no programmer nor robotic engineer, I’m an artist. I work backwards. I create a character, the body, the case for the electronic components that are gonna run behind a cute character. Why a cute character tho?

So My goal is to capture sympathy or emotional attachment from the viewer through things that they’re already familiar and comfortable with. we love cute stuffs. we like things we can relate to, so if we go back to our uncanny valley chart, I want my robot to physically appeal at this point, the apex of familiarity and comfort:

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Then of course there would be discomfort of knowing a non-human half-inanimate object is trying to understand our emotion, emotionally, that would fall under the uncanny valley:

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But if these two qualities are put together in one entity, it could create a new interesting point in the uncanny valley, a higher appealing apex:

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So I started with sketches of my character and the basic of how to input and the output would look like.

IMG_1971IMG_1973IMG_1975I will explain more about this robot in my next CPJ update with a more refined details about the sketches! There’s a lot of thinking and conversation that happened during the brainstorming of this little guy that I realized I didn’t have time to put in the CPJ, so I’ll make sure I’ll fill in the gap later when I get the time to visualize and write things.

 

NPR Hidden Brain: Can Robots Teach Us What It Means to Be Human?

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/536043276/536505014

a friend of mine suggested this podcast to me during summer break. I’m not much of a podcast gal, but some of the topics are just right up my alley, especially this one, “Can Robots Teach Us What It means to Be Human?”

Robots bent on our destruction remain the stuff of movies like “Terminator.” And robot sentience is still an idea that’s far off in the future. But there’s a lot we’re learning about smart machines, and there’s a lot that smart machines are teaching us about how we connect with the world around us and with each other. This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, can robots teach us what it means to be human?

This reminds me again of my goal of my project, or even my current art practice. It’s not about creating the perfect robot like those in sci-fis and cartoons. It’s about making people aware of our everyday life interactions that we have with an already pre-existing robots that sometimes we don’t think as much as a robot, because the society is heavily influenced by the media and pop culture have shifted people’s definition of robot.

This episode give me such big inspiration to continue on pursuing this topic, the research that has been done by professor Kate Darling proves that we do project emotions and souls into toy robots that pretty much behave like a pet dinosaur in this case. Being aware, being open to interactions between us human and robot, create a false emotion that we project onto robots, make it seems like it comes from within.

In Darling’s research, people who would likely to hurt the robots are also more likely to hurt another human being. I’m guessing that this has something to do with the level of empathy each person has. using robot as an empathy measurement for human? sounds legit to me. Now, the robots that are being used in Darling’s are designed to be friendly looking, it’s basically an expensive dinosaur pet robot toy called PLEO.

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With this cute looking robot, of course people would be more open and willing to interact with it. I wonder if that would be the case if the robots presented are just assembly of mechanical arms. Will they still project the same emotions and souls onto them? will they feel empathetic towards them?

The participants exposed to PLEO for about 20 mins then asked if one of them could hammer and break the little friend they just made. none of them could do it. they were too attached to them. Kate Darling thought the price and appearance of the robot might be a huge factor into this action taking.

Then Darling did a follow up project by using HEXBUGS toy instead of the expensive adorable dinosaur. but the result stays the same. Most of participants did not want to or were hesitant to smash the bug. Wether the participants want to smash the bug or not tells a lot about the personality of the participants themselves, that is how they treat other people and how they feel empathy to people around them.

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“So the follow-up study that we did, not with the dinosaurs, we did with HEXBUGs, which are a very simple toy that moves around like an insect. And there, we were looking at people’s hesitation to hit the HEXBUG and whether they would hesitate more if we gave it a name and whether they would hesitate more if they had natural tendencies for empathy, for empathic concern. And, you know, we found that people with low empathic concern for other people, they didn’t much care about the HEXBUG and would hit it much more quickly. And people with high empathic concern would hesitate more. And some even refused to hit the HEXBUGs. ….Yeah. I think there’s a lot of projection happening there. I also think that before we get to the question of robot rights and consciousness, you know, we have to ask ourselves, how do robots fit into our lives when we perceive them as conscious? Because I think that’s when it starts to get morally messy and not when they actually inherently have some sort of consciousness.”

– Kate Darling

So, robots are warm only if we’re warm

First try on electronics: bzzbzZ

I signed up for Unravel The Code with a lot of ideas in my head, but not enough skill for what I want to do, so I thought it’d be smart to take an Intro to Robotics class at the same time (it was a smart choice). The class is being taught by Lucas Haroldsen, he graduated from MICA sculpture program and he’s pretty cool. So on Tuesday, I did my first tutorial on electronics in class with different ways to set up LED lights. After the tutorial we were given assignment to put together a circuit based on a couple of schematic drawing options to build from a couple of basic components (transistor, potentiometer, a couple of different motors, lights, and a photoresistor) to work with. I was very fired up about the idea of my first robot I finish a week worth of assignment in one night. I didn’t talk to anyone. Am I turning into a robot? Find out at the end of the class!

So this was one of the schematics that I chose to do:

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Which is which, what is what, I had no idea what was going on. But it’s an introductory class for a reason so it came with a drawing:

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Nice, right? So I did my best and prototyped it on my breadboard:

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I had trouble with the transistor, but after a couple of tries and when everything finally worked out, it felt like jesus was born again. it’s also interesting to see components that look exactly the same but work differently and make an entire circuit works in a different way.

By turning a small input current into a large output current, the transistor acts like an amplifier. But it also acts like a switch at the same time. When there is no current to the base, little or no current flows between the collector and the emitter. Turn on the base current and a big current flows.” (src: explainthatstuff.com)

So I used the PNP transistor to switch the current to go to the base from emitter (which is connected to the photoresistor) to the collector (the output, here I chose a small motor that functions like a vibrator) and while in the day bug (using NPN transistor) the motor runs when the photoresistor is exposed to light, the PNP transistor switched it around so current flows when the photoresistor does not receive any light. Honestly, I don’t really know how it works, but at least I could understand the flow of the current so I could do my own troubleshooting.

After making sure the circuit is good on the breadboard, I put it together on a tiny copper clad board. Took me a little time to get used to soldering but it feels just like a small TIG welder:

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I am still impressed at how all of these things could fit in that tiny board (and how I didn’t burn my hand or anything nearby). I’m so proud of it.

That was my first baby step and journey into making robots, and I definitely will go beyond the class and make more.