Brain Bar Presents: the Queen of Sh*#$% Robots

The Queen and her subjects

Comedy comes in lots of flavors — anecdotal, improvisational, insult, deadpan, sketch, satire, physical, and so on. Simone Giertz, through her own inventions, has invented another. Call it robotic comedy.

Giertz, 26, builds what she describes as “shitty robots” and has crowned herself their queen. Among the creations her 420,000 YouTube subscribers and counting have observed include a wake-up machine, a hair washing robot, a sandwich robot, a butt-wiping machine, a hair-cutting drone, and knives of doom. Vids of these and others have more than 20 million views. She co-hosts TESTED, founded by Adam Savage of MythBusters fame, with whom she created the popcorn helmet. She’s been featured on all sorts of websites as well as on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Conan. It wasn’t always this way.

Adam, Simone and the popcorn helmet

While Giertz is a descendant of Lars Magnus Ericsson — the Swedish inventor, entrepreneur and founder of telecom equipment giant Ericsson — she is not a trained technologist. Her formal education in anything remotely STEM-related ended after a year of studying physics in college. She had wanted to be an astronaut, she said.

“And then I kind of realized that I might not be cut out for the work. And also I hate airplane food and rocket food can’t be that much better,” she said.

Giertz started off in regular jobs, working, in no particular order, as an editor for Sweden’s official website; as a designer at a San Francisco product development firm; and as a mixed martial-arts reporter. (Former champion Jon “Bones” Jones once told her she had “a great butt,” about which she later quipped, “Yeah, it functions well as a butt.”)

But these environments “killed my motivation,” as she described it to The Guardian.

“So I changed my strategy and instead of trying to push myself into a mold that didn’t really fit, I thought I’d just try to change the mold. I quit my job in San Francisco, moved back to Stockholm, lived on 0.5 GB of data a month and just tried to free up as much time as possible to work on stuff I thought was fun.”

An Arduino Uno would trigger her metamorphosis. At first, she couldn’t get anything to work. Then she figured out the basics, and then started connecting servomotors to it. Her first robot was a toothbrush helmet, capable of brushing teeth with epic incompetence. Others followed in quick succession.

“I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to prototype,” Giertz told The Guardian. “To me, ideas are like annoying salespeople that only go away once I’ve built them.”

Some were harder than others. The robots involving her programming a robot arm — such as the lipstick robot and the breakfast machine, took an afternoon. More complicated ones, such as the applause machine, involved a week or two of full-time effort.

Not all of her videos involve robots. “Asking an astronaut inappropriate questions,” “Why are socks assholes?” and “Welcome to houseboat life” (she lived, for a time, on an old tugboat in Stockholm) are funny, too. But her best work involves her inventions, such as her robot to “help her argue on the Internet.” It involves a white-plastic head whose face a robot arm mashes back and forth across a keyboard, technically called “facerolling.” Its inspiration, says Giertz, was from a friend who said she should make a facerolling robot for all the marriage proposals she gets.

The “facerolling” machine in action
“Didn’t know facerolling was a thing before that,” she said. “The Internet is a weird place.”

To no small degree, it all works because the viewer is keenly aware of the intelligence, skill and — indeed — competence underlying these ostensibly shitty creations. As Wired recently put it, “Giertz’s inventions might be functionally useless, but they’re comedically flawless.”

“When I started building things, obviously I was pretty bad at it, Giertz told Wired. “You can’t be good at things from the start, and I decided just to embrace that and roll with it and turn it into something funny.”

She’s back in the United States, living and working from a studio in San Francisco under the banner of her company, Artificial Stupidity.

“As much as the shitty robots I build and what I do is just a form of comedy, I think it’s also important to show that failure is a part of the process,” she told Wired. “It can sometimes be the end goal. People are very obsessed with building useful things, and I think that stops people from getting started.

“I want people to build things and to actually fix the things that they have around them,” she continued. “Just allowing yourself to spend time on what you’re enthusiastic about.”

Giertz is one of the 40 masterminds slated for the 2017 Brain Bar Budapest lineup and a great example of the thinkers, creators, innovators, doers on tap to share insights with the more than 7,000 people attending this year’s festival. Discount tickets are available here.

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Article by Todd Neff