DARPA live action via @svrobo

I’ve been live tweeting all the action from the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals 2015. It’s been exciting and definitely not like watching paint dry this time. It’s amazing how far and how fast the Grand Challenge has pushed teams to perform. Just like with the DARPA driving Grand Challenge, there is now a pathway from impossible to reality.


Ex Machina: When Turing meets Bechdel test


Alex Garland’s first feature film as a director, Ex Machina, had its US debut at SxSW on March 14. This stylish idea film explores the Turing Test in a very Pinteresque fashion as a young coder falls in love with an advanced AI. Ex Machina is beautifully framed, but Garland’s stark script succeeds on the strength of the acting from Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac.


Garland’s writing career launched in 1997 with the best selling novel “The Beach”, which the Times called the Gen X answer to Lord of the Flies. After a string of cult successes like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and drafts of Halo and Logans Run, Garland became fascinated with the emerging promise and perils of AI. In the Q&A following the SxSW screening, Garland talked about feeling a zeitgeist, a technological and cultural turning point, compelling him and other film makers and writers to address robots and artificial intelligence.

Although Garland says that he’s on the side of the robots, it’s an uneasy truce. Garland describes his film as the story of ‘two brains torturing each other’. That’s true. In Ex Machina, Tony Stark meets John Searle in a gripping drawing room theater, when a billionaire tech genius recruits a young coder to administer the Turing Test to his secret advanced embodied AI.

And it’s a stark film, there are only 4 characters; 2 men and 2 women. 2 AIs and 2 humans. And which two are the brains? That is supposed to be uncertain, but anyone who has used the Bechdel Test to analyze films or popular culture for gender issues knows exactly where the ‘brains’ are.

The Bechdel Test started as a gender litmus and has become a remarkably useful indicator of power imbalance. The test is named after Amy Bechdel a cartoonist who outlined the rules in a 1985 cartoon. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film has to have two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.

Sometimes the proviso is added that the women have to have names, because some films can have many women characters, but if the characters are all “girl at checkout” and “girl with gun” then they are just devices to add color or move the action forward. And of course, possession of a name is an important indicator of personhood, or identity awareness, so it’s always one of the first steps to separate the beings from the machines.

Many films seem at first glance to have badass female characters but when put to the Bechdel Test, it becomes clear that they never talk to anyone but the main man, or if they talk to each other, it’s about the main male characters. So really, they have no interiority, no self awareness and are probably going to fail a Turing Test. That’s where I think it would be very interesting if the Turing Test were to meet the Bechdel Test more often.

Garland is also playing games with gender and the alienness of AI in Ex Machina. There is a beautiful scene where Ava, the AI, performs a reverse strip tease, putting on her human body.

But I’m afraid that Ex Machina falls at the final fence, as does just about every other science fiction film I’ve ever seen, aside from Alien. The Bechdel Test is useful for more than examining gender representation. It can be our Turing Test for creating believable alien or artificial life forms. If you look at our filmic or cultural representations of the other or alien, then you have to be struck by the singular nature of them all. From Frankenstein to Big Hero 6, do they have any reality without the central human characters?

No, they are alone. Even Alien is alone. At least in Frankenstein, it is the utter aloneness of the new form that is the whole story. Films that have pushed the envelope are few. And doing a quick mental check, the was left feeling empathy for the ‘others’ in only a couple, like Westworld, BladeRunner and Planet of the Apes, and the books of writers like Brin and Cherryh.

How believable are our ‘other’ AIs and robots? Brad Templeton said that an autonomous vehicle isn’t autonomous until we tell it to go to the office and it decides to go to the beach instead. A life outside of our anthropomorphic story is what’s missing from our AIs, aliens and others. We don’t really care about them or their lives outside of their impact on our own. And this makes us poorer.

The final shot is a haunting homage to Plato’s Cave’ although Garland credits his Director of Photography entirely for it. In The Republic, Plato posed the question, what if humans were born chained to face a cave wall seeing the world only as the shadows passing in front of a fire behind them in the mouth of the cave. Imagine the difference when you see the world, unchained from the cave.

I can’t say more. Go see Ex Machina. And use the Bechdel Test on everything.

Qualcomm to power high school robotics with Snapdragon


On March 11, FIRST® announced that its worldwide high school robotics competition, FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC®), will be using the Qualcomm® Snapdragon processor as the platform for its robot and driver station controls. Moving to a communication and control system based on Android and Snapdragon will keep FIRST Tech Challenge students at the forefront of new technology developments.

FIRST teams will be using Java, a programming language built into more than 3 billion devices. “Current FIRST Tech Challenge teams can use their existing equipment in the exciting new platform,” said Ken Johnson, director, FIRST Tech Challenge. “A simple interface between Android devices and their current sensors and motor controllers will allow for a simple transition. Sensors built into the Snapdragon-powered devices will expand the teams’ options in future competitions as well.”

FIRST Tech Challenge is designed for students who want to compete head to head using a sports model. Teams design, build, and program their robots to compete on a 12’x12’ field in an Alliance format, against other teams. Teams are required to develop strategy and build a robot based on sound engineering principals, such as rapid prototyping and iterative design.

igate tech challenge

“In the foreseeable future, robotics will permeate our everyday lives,” said FIRST Founder, Dean Kamen. “Our FIRST students are ahead of the game as they are already adept users of three emerging technologies: sensors; 3D printing, and open-source software. Now that we are adding this mobile element to the already-robust FIRST technology equation – just watch what these kids will be capable of doing.”

For more information.


Highly visible, key volunteers are needed to judge or referee at the FIRST Tech Challenge West Super-Regional Championship, presented by Google.   The top 72 FIRST Tech Challenge teams will be coming to the Oakland Convention Center between March 27-29.  This 3 day event will feature teams from the Western United States including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana,  Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. This event is highly prestigious for the teams to attend and their invitation was merit-based on strong performance at one of the 13 regional/state level championships around the west.

Training for either roles is a couple of hours (max) and consists of reading a reasonably short training document and taking a short certification quiz.    Additional on site training will be available as well.   We particularly need technical women and under-represented minority men in these roles.

Judges are needed Friday through Sunday between ~8am and ~6pm each day.

Referees are needed Friday evening (~5pm) through Sunday

To learn more, you can visit   http://ftcwest.org/volunteer-information/
Have questions about volunteering,  email to Bill or Loridee at volunteer@ftcwest.org

Diversity Supporters Needed:

On Friday morning 3/27, we are hosting a Diversity Breakfast celebrating the achievements of under-represented minorities and girls in the participating teams.

We invite you to sponsor this event by choosing one of the two options:

1.       Diversity Breakfast Lead Sponsor at $10,000. The sponsor will keynote during the breakfast and will be recognized in the event Program Book and other materials as an event sponsor. The Lead Diversity Breakfast sponsor will have the opportunity for a 10×10 booth available throughout the 3 day event and will be able to hand out promotional materials as well as receives 2 table sponsorships.

2.       Table Sponsor. Each table sponsor will host 6 students and 2 group representatives. Sponsorship ranges from $500 for college groups and engineering societies to $2500 for corporations/corporate groups.   The group representatives will be able to connect with the student members at their table, answer questions and possibly even recruit potential summer interns!

FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) is designed for students in grades 7-12 to compete head to head, using a sports model. Teams are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots to compete in an alliance format against other teams. FTC has a strong history of merit-based team advancement at all levels of the program. Top teams advance from local qualifiers to the state/regional Championships and then to one of 4 Super-Regional Championships before heading to the FIRST World Championship.  We believe that it is important to reward excellence, and this advancement system is one way that our program does that.  The events will be highly visible and prestigious for teams to attend.

To learn more, you can visit   http://ftcwest.org/2014-2015-event-info/sponsor-info/celebrating-diversity-in-tech/

Have questions,  email to Jill at ftc@playingatlearning.org

THANK YOU!!     We are also still looking for event sponsors as well as companies that could offer a “tour” for the high schoolers to visit on Thursday 3/26 (afternoon or later) and Monday/or  3/30 (mostly morning).

Robots for humanity inspires


Henry Evans had a brain stem stroke in 2002 that left him quadriplegic. Since then he has turned to robotics to unlock his abilities. Robots For Humanity (R4H.org) is a project that chronicles Henry’s quest to find robotics solutions to augment and improve his life, and that of other people with disabilities, to “let people perform at their best”. 

An event commemorating the project was hosted by Silicon Valley Robotics at Highway 1 last night, featuring guest talks by Evans and Steve Cousins, who helped Evans to co-found the project while he was CEO at Willow Garage. Steve Cousins is now the CEO of Savioke, a service and elder care robotics startup.

Henry spoke via BEAM telepresence device from Suitable Technologies. And some of the audience also attended via BEAM. Henry has also given TED talks via BEAM, and we were lucky enough to hear his new talk, which introduces ‘tele-tourism’ (no more spoilers) and describes the wide range of robotics or smart hardware solutions that Henry has inspired roboticists to build for him.



The original Robots For Humanity project involved using a PR2 to help Henry shave himself and scratch itches. But it’s not realistic to have a $400,000 robot in the house to scratch your nose, especially given the size of the robot! Since then, Henry has got a much simpler ‘Scratchbot’. He has also taken to flying drones and working with FXPAL, the Fuji Xerox multimedia research group on the Polly project.


Polly is a wearable telepresence device, consisting of a smartphone on a stabilized gimbal. The viewing angle can be adjusted via remote control. The device can be carried by hand or on shoulder or perched on surfaces. The presence of a human operator allows for more social interaction in the telepresence experience.


The audience was inspired by the event and I don’t want to ruin the TED talk by saying anymore. But Henry still has plenty of suggestions for research projects that he’d like to see in his life and many of them are ‘simple’ things. Things like being able to control an automated bed with an eye tracking interface, not a remote control. Or to use a head mounted pointer to turn lights on and off.

These are simple things with a very big impact. And sometimes they are expensive things to build, but the impact that they have is priceless.

“If you want something, you look for options. If you don’t want it, you look for excuses.” – Henry Evans

Evans also summed it up nicely in a video that is posted on the Robots for Humanity website: “It’s up to all of us to decide how we want robotics to be used – for good or for evil, for replacing people or for making people better.”


Two MOOCs for robotics enrolling now

Mooc overview

Anyone can now enrol in two robotics MOOCs, “Introduction to Robotics” and “Robotic Vision” from Peter Corke at QUT which will run in early 2015. Registration is free. Peter Corke is a professor of robotics at QUT and director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision, who was recently featured on the Robots Podcast. He wrote the textbook Robotics, Vision & Control and authored the MATLAB toolboxes for Robotics and Machine Vision.


The MOOCs are based on Robotics, Vision & Control. ‘Introduction to Robotics will run from 16 February to 27 March 2015 and covers the topics like; creating and measuring motion, robot arms, forward and inverse kinematics, actuation, endpoint velocity, joint control and rigid body dynamics. You can also build a lego robot and control it with MATLAB.


‘Robotic Vision’ will run from 13 April to 22 May 2015 and covers; image processing and acquisition, spatial operators, feature extraction, color, image formation and geometry, 3D vision, motion and advanced image processing. You also build a robot vision system with a webcam and MATLAB.  If you did the first MOOC, you can connect them together to create a vision-guided robot.

Each MOOC runs for 6 weeks, with 2 1 hour lectures per week, quizzes, a weekly programming assessment in MATLAB and a weekly grade assessment. The courses are being delivered on the Open edX platform. Visit tiny.cc/robomoocs for more information or to register, and enjoy the story of what motivated Peter to develop the MOOCs. 

Women in Robotics

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, I started publishing a list of 25 amazing women in robotics, covering a whole range of areas from research to business. The first list came out last year (2013) and now here is the 2014 list. Great news is that we already have a backlog of great contenders for the 2015 list. See the full posts over at Robohub.org