Note: This is an excerpt of Brian David Johnson’s new book, 21st Century Robot, an audacious experiment in storytelling that weaves sci-fi stories into a real-life nonfiction narrative featuring several worldwide adventures, a serious dose of 3D printing, plenty of open source technology, the efforts of a first grade class, and a socially precocious robot named Jimmy in an effort to get us all to one day soon design, print, and give life to a robot of our very own.
So It Begins
“So what makes a 21st Century Robot different from a twentieth-century robot?” Dale Dougherty, the founder and executive chairman of Maker Media, asked me on a phone call at the beginning of the project. Infinitely curious and always a huge supporter of this new approach to robots, Dale pushed me to define what I meant by 21st Century Robots.
“Well,” I replied, standing in my kitchen staring at the phone, “I’d say that a 21st Century Robot is imagined first. It’s certainly social, open source, and iterative, but it’s also filled with the hopes and dreams of the people that made her, him, or it. It’s also easy to build!”
“So it’s up to the people who build the robot?” Dale asked. “Is that a 21st Century Robot?”
“We don’t know,” I replied. “That’s the really great thing about it. When it comes to a 21st Century Robot, we really don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it is. It’s not up to me. It’s up to the person who is building the robot. Every robot is personalized. Every robot is an individual. Every robot should have its own name, because every 21st Century Robot is an individual, because every robot is built by a person.”
“I think you need to write a manifesto,” Dale said with a laugh. “I think you actually just wrote one.”
“I’ve never written a manifesto,” I answered. I didn’t know people still wrote manifestos.
“Just answer this question: what makes a 21st Century Robot different from a twentieth-century robot? What makes it different from anything else that has come before?”
And that’s how a manifesto was born in my kitchen in Portland, Oregon. This is what I came up with…
21st Century Robot Manifesto
In the twenty-first century, technology has progressed to the point where what we build is only constrained by the limits of our imaginations. It’s time to imagine a radically different kind of robot. A robot that is designed, constructed, and programmed like never before. We can imagine and build a far more amazing future than we have today—a much more creative and rich tomorrow for robots and their relationship to humans. It’s time for a 21st Century Robot.
This is our manifesto:
Nothing was ever built by humans that wasn’t imagined first. Imagination is the most important skill needed to build your robot. In the twenty-first century, anyone can imagine, design, and build a robot.
But first you must ask yourself: who do you want your robot to be? What is your robot’s name? (Because every robot has a name.) Every robot is an individual. How do you want to act and interact with your robot? What would your robot do that is special? What would your robot do that no one else’s would do?
Draw a picture of your robot. Write a story about what it would be like to live with your robot each and every day. What new, wonderful things would your robot do? What could go wrong? What should we avoid? Your imagination and these ideas will make your robot an individual.
Science fiction stories, comics, and movies are powerful tools that can help you to imagine your robot. We can use science fiction, based on science fact, to design robots, and share those stories as a technical requirements document.
Easy to Build
Back in the twentieth century, building a robot was hard. Computers were massive and slow. Electronics were complicated, and the manufacturing process was reserved for just a handful of people who had the money to build factories and assembly lines. But all that’s changed.
Today computers are small and easily accessible. Software tools and apps allow anyone to be a programmer or designer. 3D printers have lowered the barrier between the digital and physical worlds, allowing us to manufacture nearly anything we can dream up. There are entire communities, events, and places where you can go to design and print your robot.
Completely Open Source
The idea behind open source is that people should have control over the technology we use. We should be able to build it, modify it, and share it. The practice and community around open source really got popular at the end of the twentieth century with the expansion of the Internet and the software it ran on, like the open source operating system Linux.
A 21st Century Robot is completely open source. Starting with 3D design files, everyone should be able to design and customize his own robot. The software that runs the robot and makes up its brain is free and open. You can play with the operating system, and even design different apps for your robot.
More than anything else, we want you to share your designs with others. Did you come up with a cool new leg design? What’s your latest app? Even the production of these robots is open; people all over the world can collaborate to build better, smarter, funnier, and more exciting robots.
Why make just one robot when you can make lots of robots? The practice of iteration is the repeating of a process with the goal of making multiple versions of an object or a project. We make many robots with the aim to improve and experiment with different versions. Each robot is the starting point for the next. Each new robot plays around with what we learned from the previous.
It’s okay to experiment and try new ideas. Building off this kind of open source sharing, things get really interesting when you experiment with other people’s ideas.
A 21st Century Robot is fiercely social. It is primarily designed to act and interact with people. It also connects to the Internet, to social networks, and to other 20th Century Robots. What would your robot say to another robot?
How we build these robots is social as well. There is an entire community of people all around the world who love building and who dream of a very different kind of robot. Working together, we can change the future of robotics.
Filled with Humanity and Dreams
Robots are built by people. We design them with our hopes and dreams. We can imagine our possible futures, and put those future dreams into our robots. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori saw that our machines are an extension of ourselves. In 1974, he wrote: “Machines, while appearing to be separate from us, are in truth only functions that have been cut away from us, but are essentially part of us.”
Our robots are a way to imagine a different future, to build our dreams and let them play with us.
Thinking for Her/Him/Itself
You can design your robot to her/his/its own personality and behaviors. You can make apps to do just about anything your imagination can dream up. A 21st Century Robot isn’t a puppet. It is designed to think for itself with real artificial intelligence, to move around and make decisions. It is designed to act and interact with you and other people. We want these robots to be adventurous and strange and funny.
Our Motto: “Every Robot Has a Name”
Every robot is built by people in their backyards, garages, and basements. Every person has a name. Every one of us is an individual. That’s why every robot should have a name: because your robot, and all the other robots you will build, will be an extension of you. Your robot and the design for your robot will go out into the world.
Other people might use parts of it to make their own. This sharing and iteration can go on and on. We keep building…we keep sharing…we keep designing, programming, and building robots.
That’s a 21st Century Robot. It’s a way for us to imagine, design, build, and share our own personal visions for the future. And it’s also a way to make some really awesome little friends.
The future is Brian David Johnson’s business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called “future casting”—using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.