Last night I built my first robot.
Sarah Applebaum and Andrea Palmer worked in partnership with Geering Up and PlentyofFish (who hosted) to give myself and a bunch of other excited (but newbie) women the opportunity to build and fight robots at a ladies-only event “Wine and Battle Bots”. The evening started with socially lubricating food and wine and a description of the genesis of the event from Sarah Applebaum.
The organizers had recently attended a training program where they built their own first robots. Despite being in STEM, it’s surprising how many of us (women in STEM) have never dabbled in robotics! You can’t know what you’re interested in if you’re never exposed. Last night was our chance to change that (for robotics at least).
Before we got tinkering, we got some inspiration from Suzanne Gildert, who currently works in Artificial Intelligence at a company of her own design called Kindred (currently in “stealth mode” so I don’t have a link, and “Kindred” might be a working title). She talked about her previous work and PhD in physics and quantum mechanics. Somewhere along the line though she realized “Quantum mechanics is cool, but human-like intelligence in robots is cooler.”
I liked how confident Gildert was about the approachability of her work. At one point she said “It’s really not that hard” and the audience cracked up. But she wasn’t joking, and proved it by discussing how self-directed learning can give anyone the tools to get started in robotics and AI. Being in a transitioning stage of my own life, her confidence gave me a sense of infinite opportunity… My gut reaction to her talk was that being curious, engaged, and eager to learn are valuable traits that can open unexpected doors. That the future is bright, even when it’s uncertain.
Then we got cracking.
Our team was totally, completely lost. There were hundreds of different pieces with mysterious functions and a clock ticking down to fight-time. We were told that the core of our robots would be the programmable unit and two motors that it powered. We quickly got a rough idea of what we wanted to build: use one motor for locomotion, and the other as a flipping-device/weapon. Then we struggled to make it happen. For. Far. Too. Long. Luckily some of the wonderful volunteers took pity on us and came to our rescue, racing to turn our half-baked plan into reality.
When it was time to fight, I was sure our robot would be the most haphazard beast to grace the battlegrounds. It looked a little elephant-beetle-like, and was programmed only to go forward, because we didn’t have time to do anything else. After struggling with the structural elements for so long, we didn’t even have time to learn the interface of the computing device, so I had to keep harassing the volunteers to tell me how to turn it on.
Somehow, we did have time to discuss several possible names for our team/bot. We considered “Butlertron”, “Sweater Vest”, “Wesley” (yes, all Clone High references), and finally landed on “Lurch”, because of the way it moved.
Our battle was a riot. The opponent, “Mars Razor”, was programmed to move forward for a moment, then backward, to repeatedly stab it’s enemies with it’s fearsome plastic forks. It also had a highly effective cheerleading team yelling “FORK YOU!”. At go-time, Lurch immediately climbed on top of Mars Razor and pushed it to the edge of the stage. I think Lurch managed this feat because climbing on top of Mars Razor put the rear-wheels (where all the power was) firmly on the ground, and the forward-backward program vs forward-only program meant overall movement for Mars Razor was backward. Later, Lurch’s rotating weapons managed to loosen some parts on Mars Razor and get tangled in it’s wires. At the end when we pulled them apart, the tangling led to Mars Razor experiencing some mild disassembly.
(Video taken by one of our opponents, I didn’t get her name but she graciously shared the file with us.)
Despite the mounting, pushing, and disassembly, we lost our fight and did not continue on to the semi-finals. “Winning” was determined by human judges, so criteria were subjective. My best guess for our loss was that winning was based on bot-coolness, and the “only move forward” approach to programming was our downfall.
When all the bots had finished competing, we had a Hunger Games style free-for-all with all competitors. There were no winners, but plenty of hilarity.
After the battles we cleaned up, drank more wine, caught up with old friends and made new ones.
As a networking/social event, this evening was phenomenal. You can only be shy for so long when you’re frantically scrambling to fit pieces together, clustered around robots battling to the death, or laughing as your competitors cheer “fork you” at the beetle-like creature you’ve made that turned out to have a scandalously suggestive fighting style. I’m eagerly looking forward to trying it again!