Makers: the New Explorers of the Universe

Makers: the New Explorers of the Universe
Historically, science and exploration was the domain of amateurs. (Images: Royal Ontario Museum/Flickr)
Before the establishment of discipline-specific training programs in the 18th and 19th centuries, most scientific research was carried out by amateurs.  (Images: Royal Ontario Museum/Flickr)

“[In] the last century, discovery was basically finding things. And in this century, discovery is basically making things.”

So explained Stewart Brand at the TED conference this past February. He was referring to the National Geographic Society’s rationale for hosting the first-ever meeting on de-extinction — a gathering of scientists and engineers who are using biotechnology to bring back extinct species.

His statement is a bold idea: the future of discovery is about making. In the context of Brand’s talk, however, the message was quickly overshadowed by the even bolder idea that we are close to reviving extinct species. But the “making” statement is worth unpacking. Is it true? What does that mean for discovery? What does that mean for makers?

True discovery — the kind that pushes the species forward — doesn’t get mentioned much in popular culture, or even maker conversations, for that matter. It’s a feature on the Twitter search bar, a television network that hosts Shark Week, or something relegated to research universities and National Geographic. Not something that regular folks like us stop to consider, unless we’re reading an article about some new finding or breakthrough. But maybe it’s time we start.

In July, the OpenROV team attended the Ocean Exploration 2020 conference at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. It wasn’t so much a conference as it was a meeting, an invite-only event that brought together the leaders of the ocean exploration world: federal agencies, leading scientists and engineers, as well as private foundations and organizations. It was a who’s who of famous explorers and influential groups: Sylvia Earle, Don Walsh, the Google Ocean team, scientists from Scripps and Woods Hole. And then us: Eric Stackpole and me, with three of our OpenROVs.

Our presentation came near the end of the first day. We did what we know: told our story of wanting to explore the Hall City Cave and the network of DIY ocean explorers that have grown around the project. We talked about the broader maker movement and how, as amateurs, we’re attempting to remake a whole swath of the scientific toolkit, using OpenCTD and the Raspberry Pi Data Buoy as oceanographic examples. We also (inadvertently) used a term we had never used before: Citizen Explorers. The crowd seemed a little stunned. As a group, they had very little idea what makers have been up to. It wasn’t until the final slide — a photo I snapped of Eric and Colin Ho in the airport – that everyone saw the potential: two guys, three ROVs, and all of it was carry-on luggage.

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The group decided the growing potential for citizen exploration was an important development, enough that the concept has made it onto NOAA’s National Agenda for Ocean Exploration. The scientists and researchers loved the idea of internet helpers sorting through their data and contributing to their research projects. That was their interpretation of the opportunity, anyways. And who could blame them — that’s the way that “citizen science” has been articulated and explained for years. Here’s how the White House recently described “citizen science” during a Champions of Change award ceremony:

Every day, across the country, ordinary Americans known as “citizen scientists” make critical contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by collecting, analyzing, and sharing a wide range of data — from weather phenomena, to sightings of migrating birds, to the timing of flower blooms at different latitudes.

Just a bunch of data monkeys, basically. Of course that’s not true. Many of these programs — Zooniverse, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Foldit, REEF Fish Counts, among others — are doing fantastic work. But I think that perspective is a tragically limited view of what’s actually happening. Not to mention what’s actually possible.

I see three main reasons why this contemporary view of citizen science needs an upgrade. The first is a matter of motivation. The current narrative, held by the White House and many others, implies that these “ordinary Americans” are contributing to these projects out of a sense of duty — the main motivator is to participate in the advancement of science. I don’t buy that. Sure, it’s part of it — knowing the contributions are useful — but it’s not what drives someone to get involved. I think it’s less complicated, and much more human. It’s about curiosity.

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Science needs curiosity, but curiosity doesn’t necessarily need science. Curiosity can lead to science, but it doesn’t have to. I think it’s an important distinction. It’s fine to follow a hunch. To wonder how something works. To scratch an itch. To watch closely. That’s the true nature of exploration — seeking without knowing what you’ll find.

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The second reason the popular understanding of citizen science falls short is in regard to tools. Technology has always been an enabler, from the outrigger sailing canoes of the Polynesians to the rockets used in the Apollo Program. Technology continually redraws the boundaries. It’s easy to notice those changing limits with tools like the Mars Curiosity Rover or James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger. They are at the cliff’s edge of what humans know how to do. But there’s another, more subtle way that technology challenges limits: when it becomes ubiquitous. And that’s exactly where we find ourselves now.

Take the story of this garage (below) as an example. This was our garage. This is where Eric started prototyping his first underwater robot, before the name OpenROV had ever come up. Just a guy, a story of lost gold in an underwater cave, and an infectious case of “what if we tried this.” Supported by the tools at Techshop, and eventually a whole community of contributors, a dream came to life and, more importantly, a humble curiosity was satisfied. The constraints — the lack of money and access to expensive commercial equipment — forced a new path. It wasn’t exactly virgin territory, though. We had followed others. Chris Anderson and his DIY Drones network, for one, had proven that a dedicated group of garage-based enthusiasts could recreate previously unobtainable technology, specifically UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

But we also found inspiration closer to home. Much closer: in the same garage. A year before OpenROV began, a group of friends — Robbie Schingler, Will Marshall and Chris Boshuizen — began to wonder about the increasing capabilities (and falling costs) of consumer parts like smartphones, and how those components could be used to create highly capable small satellites. Well, turns out they were onto something big. Their idea, Planet Labs, quickly outgrew the suburban garage (conveniently leaving us the space to grow into).

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Planet Labs (photo above from Robbie Schingler) grows too big for the Cupertino garage. They eventually moved out, leaving space for OpenROV (pictured below).
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Unloading boxes for our growing manufacturing operation.

Fast forward to today. All three groups are continuing to move at a breakneck pace. We’ve just released our most capable and exciting ROV yet, OpenROV v2.5. Chris and 3D Robotics have kickstarted an entire industry and have just released the Iris, a fully autonomous, ready-to-fly quadcopter. Planet Labs has successfully launched two of their small satellites into orbit and will have the largest constellation of earth observation satellites by the end of this year. And with all of those groups, the conversation has changed dramatically, going from “wouldn’t it be cool if…” to “OK, wow, this is a really great tool for…”

The list of potential uses keeps growing. For all of us.



And that’s a small sliver of what’s happening, just the activity I’ve noticed in my corner of the world. In reality, it’s much bigger and broader than that. Dale Dougherty wrote an important introduction to the latest issue of MAKE about the ecosystem of microcontrollers and miniature linux computers that are becoming the building blocks of this brave new world:

The hobbyist revolution that Byte chronicled through the 1980s brought computers into everyday life, and our experience of computers today is largely defined by applications. Indeed, the revolution has come full circle so that networked computers have become what the mainframe once was — only now it’s the cloud, and computers are hidden in the mist.

Hidden in the mist. And now the sky, sea, and even outer space. Makers (and their connected devices) are moving out of the garage and into the physical and natural world. Of course, this wasn’t really unforeseen. People have been talking about the Internet of Things for years. But the aesthetic of the industrial internet always conjured up visions of connected devices that spoke quietly to each other: thermostats that never needed tending, plants that watered themselves and toasters that knew the day’s weather. It was always a promise of convenience (and automation and sleekness). What wasn’t obvious, to me anyway, was that an Internet of Things could usher in a golden age for curiosity. Where everyone, even a luddite like me, was constantly at the edge of what was possible. Where a new adventure — a new set of questions about our world and our place in it — was only a group friends and an internet connection away.

It’s curiosity for curiosity’s sake. Without permission and without reservation. Which brings up the third reason the current notion of “citizen science” needs to be re-examined. It’s not about fitting into the existing scientific establishment: peer reviewed papers, NSF grant applications, and conferences. It’s more basic than that. Have a question? Make the tool, find the answer. Do we really need to create a dolphin-controlled robot? Probably not. Will it be interesting and worth studying and sharing the outcomes? Absolutely! The NSF wouldn’t touch a project like this. But the question doesn’t have to stop there. We can do it on our own volition. Simply because we can.

It opens up all sorts of new ethical questions we’ll have to answer. We’re just starting to see this play out. Should we use our OpenROVs to control the invasive Lionfish in Florida? Where do we draw the privacy line for drones in our neighborhoods? The more we can do, the more we need to think about what we should do.

Perhaps no maker sub-group has faced these questions more than the growing DIY bio community. A stark example is the Glowing Plant project on Kickstarter, which raised over $484,013 to create a glowing plant using new synthetic biology techniques. Their methods raised tensions with some activist groups with their plans to distribute their genetically modified organisms to their Kickstarter backers. Kickstarter found itself in the awkward position of having to decide how to regulate the distribution of genetically modified organisms through its site (they ultimately decided against allowing GMOs as potential rewards). But if you take a step back — and set aside whatever your personal politics are about the GMO issue — the whole situation is quite extraordinary: a small team (three people) working out of a community lab space (BioCurious) are driving a public discussion on the development and distribution of synthetically created organisms. A discussion that is absolutely worth having.

Patrik D’Haeseleer, bioinformatician and co-founder of Counter Culture Labs, gives a great overview and perspective on the Glowing Plant project in the latest issue of BioCoder:

The use of this gene-gun technology to circumvent the USDA’s regulations on non-food plants did not escape the notice of the 800-pound gorilla in the field of plant engineering. Monsanto, in collaboration with Scotts Miracle-Gro, has been developing a bluegrass strain (the lawn variety, not the banjo variety) that was engineered to be resistant to their favorite herbicide, glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup). Because nobody but your dog eats lawn grass, it’s not covered by FDA regulations, and since they used gene-gun technology instead of our friend Agrobacterium, it’s not covered by USDA’s plant pathogen–based regulations. Scotts/Monsanto saw a huge gap in GMO regulations and waltzed right through it! Mind you, there were still plenty of voices saying that they should never have gotten away with this. After all, there are plenty of weed grasses that their bluegrass could potentially outcross with, and by inserting the herbicide resistance genes, they’ve given this grass an evolutionary advantage wherever there are traces of Roundup in the environment. But get away with it they did: the USDA ruled that their bluegrass did not pose a risk to become an agricultural pest, and that was that.

Now, compare that Roundup Ready bluegrass with our little Glowing Plant: Arabidopsis is not a very hardy plant, and since it is self-pollinating, it is highly unlikely to outcross with more vigorously growing weeds to begin with (unlike grasses). Also, rather than giving it a fitness advantage by making it resistant to herbicides, the genes we’re inserting into its genome will drain a small amount of its energy to produce light, so it will likely do slightly worse than its unmodified cousins in the environment. Other than that (and the fact that Monsanto is a multi-billion dollar company with thousands of lawyers), the two are fairly analogous.

But, really, they’re not analogous. The Glowing Plant project is not a multinational corporation. Nor is it the National Academy of Sciences. Nor Harvard or MIT researchers. Just three guys on Kickstarter, openly sharing their data and inviting discussion around the process, with tools that are available (or will soon be available) to you.

From my perspective, this is very different than the “citizen science” defined by the White House. It’s more than just collecting data for existing research — it’s entirely new territory. It’s true citizen exploration. In the same “Champions of Change” blog post, the White House writes:

Public participation in scientific research, also known as citizen science, is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, before the establishment of discipline-specific training programs in the 18th and 19th centuries, most scientific research was carried out by amateurs.

They’re right. The idea that curiosity is confined to the realm of a few professionals is relatively recent. We come from a long line of curious explorers. And it’s makers carrying the torch into a new era of citizen exploration.

8 thoughts on “Makers: the New Explorers of the Universe

  1. mattnewbury says:

    Reblogged this on flowing and commented:
    I found David’s article to be really thought provoking. The term Amateur has been so often used to mean ‘of low quality’. In the context of David’s article the Amateur is a hero. It is somebody driven by a passion to explore without the hum-drum motivation of payment. Surely it can’t be surprising that passionate people will break through barriers and chart new territory? The Amateur may lack a formal education but unskilled they are not.

  2. cknich5 says:

    Reblogged this on NoCo Maker Faire.

  3. Dennis Bartels says:

    This is a really important moment for the community to get it’s definition of terms right, and I love David’s distinction between Citizen Scientists and Citizen Explorers. What makes Make or Tinkering unique is it’s element of self-indulgence, meant positively, to pursue your own question and curiosity. Collecting and sharing data for large scale or global projects is a wonderful thing. Making new tools or repurposing existing ones for original scientific discovery is something even grander, and important to call out. Let’s celebrate the Citizen Explorers!

  4. Timothy Zyg says:

    At one time, ‘amateurs’ were as respected as professionals. They collaborated directly with institutions, and were responsible for many key breakthroughs. The word means “To do something for the love of it”, and at one time, it was not a pejorative. The linguistic shift of that word has happened over the years, as big business and government have remapped the ideas of what is good science, and that science should be controlled by institutions. Now we have a great lack of basic discoveries, almost certainly because of the institutionalization and corporatisation of science. We are left with people thinking that the reason we have not had basic discoveries for so long is simply because there are not any more to make.

    Personally I think that is utter rubbish, arrogant, and against the basic scientific ideal. In my view, Citizen science has a heck of a lot to contribute, in that citizen science is probably the only area where basic discoveries are still possible.. truly ground breaking discoveries that disrupt markets and lives (electric light bulb, TV, etc). I hope more people take up the challenge!

  5. Terre Tulsiak says:

    In the interest of looking at using advances such as this for good and not evil, I wonder why no one has proposed the obvious- cross e.coli or something to see just how contaminated a variety of places can be.

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Co-Founder of OpenROV, a community of DIY ocean explorers and makers of low-cost underwater robots. Author of Zero to Maker. And on Twitter!

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