Robot Drift

We all know that robots will be taking all of our jobs sooner or later, just before they rise up against us. They still have quite a ways to go however. In the Pilgrimage Project we took advantage of the widespread human desire to gawk at robots doing things. Danielle Storbeck, Chris Miller and I put together a robot tour guide unlike any I had ever seen.

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The guts of it (not pictured) were pretty basic. It’s a platform robot with an arduino mega for the main logic board, two controllers for the front and rear wheels and a macbook air handling the voice synthesizer and timing. The robot is a basic line-follower, and at first we took it very seriously. We wanted to make the best robot tour guide anyone had ever seen. One day though, late in the project cycle, I totally messed it up by trying to attach some 12v fans to the back of it. I created a ground loop that fried one of the line sensors and the thing was never the same again. It would drift off the line and never find its way back. After freaking out we starting to talk about how funny it would be if the robot didn’t just drift off the line, but also in its narrative. What if it started getting off-topic during the tour? Giving bad information and getting confused? What if there was cognitive drift as well as physical drift?

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The final project that made it into the exhibition was just that, a robot with it’s wires crossed. The physical form of the robot looks haphazard and shoddily made, it’s clearly a prototype, complete with a color-changing plastic dome right out of Buck Rodgers era scifi. The narrative snippets we made for the tour start out plausibly enough—the robot drives around the line, stops to look at the tour group and tells them some fascinating facts. As it goes on, it loses the line and needs to be wrangled by its handler to get back on track. Each time this happens the narrative drifts a little more. First it gets some facts believably wrong (kind of like wikipedia), then it states obvious lies, then it just totally loses the plot. It was fun to make and fun to watch people figure out that they shouldn’t take robots so seriously. Not yet at least.

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Hopefully I’ll be long gone before our new robot overlords happen upon this project.