About curiosity, society and machines

We’re fascinated with robots because they are reflections of ourselves. — Ken Goldberg

Introduction

I started studying computers early, in fact, I was 7 when I typed a command on a keyboard for the first time…

Day by day, what saved me from wasting my time doing un-useful stuff with that piece of hardware, has been the curiosity. I was starving to know what was going on inside that machine, what was causing those strange sounds coming from that box, what kind of magic was behind the hypnotic blinking of LEDs.

In my childish mind the only way to understand something was to experiment. I started to disassemble devices (often breaking them).

After some electric shocks, the jump from “understand” to “control” was necessary so I started learning how to program “things”. Everything was difficult at that time, there was no stable Internet connection, there was no Wikipedia nor Google… I still remember the first time I overclocked a computer; I did it following the instructions of a guy (known on IRC minutes before) talking with him by telephone. It was awesome back then (because, you know, what gives value to things is the difficulty).


What about today

Of course everything is radically changed, which sounds pretty normal and obvious; the big question is about in which direction we are going to go…

“For God’s sake, let us be men
not monkeys minding machines
or sitting with our tails curled
while the machine amuses us, the radio or film or gramophone.
Monkeys with a bland grin on our faces.”
D.H. Lawrence, Selected Letters

How sad is seeing our kids with their faces down on their smartphones playing junky games?

How clever would be seeing our kids with their faces down on their smartphones trying to understand how them works?

See the difference? That’s all about… curiosity… the main fuel of everything (after love, indeed). One of the biggest mistakes of our society is trying to replace “curiosity” with “cosiness”. Curiosity is something deeply rooted inside us, it’s probably what pushed us from being monkeys to being scientists taking photographs of light-years away galaxies.

In the past we had nothing to use and everything to invent. In the present we have everything to use and no need to invent.


Something is changing

Smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, sensors, OpenData, Internet of Things, 3D printers… for the most of us all of these are common terms by now. The remarkable thing is that they are not only geeky things but also the evidence that something is turning on the opposite way.

Our technologies are becoming modular and scalable. Objects are starting to interact with us, with themselves and with what surrounds them and, last but not least, we can finally (easily) program and control them. I see freedom in this, do you?


Knowledge in our society

After curiosity, knowledge is the key. Without knowledge everything said above becomes useless.

Are our schools and colleges ready for this? I have the fortune to know people from different countries all over the world and for each of these countries there are weaknesses about the approach to new technologies during the studies.

But there is a common meeting point: we should encourage our youth to understand before to use. To hack something if it doesn’t fit the needs. To build their own world, not to merely accept the one which someone else has chosen for them. To do that we should change some models, economically and industrially speaking at first. Is a future society made by homogeneous groups of people helping each other possible? Something like hi-tech, erudites, farmers growing machines.


Remarkable “unlocking curiosity” projects


RaspberryPi


Born for educational purposes, this magic board, has immediately catalysed the attention of the OpenSource community. After hundreds and hundreds of projects it’s now used in many contexts:

  • Teaching IT and computer programming
  • Research and Science
  • Entertainment

The main reason of its success is its low price (35 USD) followed by other factors such as:

  • a small format with very good performances (e.g. the RPi 2 can fit in the palm of your hand and has a 900MHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 CPU with 1GB LPDDR2 of SDRAM)
  • a huge amount of available operative systems (GNU/Linux, Arch Linux ARM, OpenELEC, Raspbmc, RISC OS Pi, Windows 10 and counting…)
  • a prolific community of developers and users
  • its intrinsic feature to be extendible

Grove system and GrovePi


Sensors, sensors everywhere… that’s your first thought when you receive a bunch of these awesome (and cheap) sensors.

Grove is a modulated, ready-to-use tool set. Much like Lego, it takes a building block approach to assembling electronics. Compared with the traditional, complicated learning method of using a breadboard and various electronic components to assemble a project, Grove simplifies and condenses the learning process significantly. The Grove system consists of a base shield and various modules with standardized connectors. The base shield allows for easy connection of any microprocessor input or output from the Grove modules, and every Grove module addresses a single function, such as a simple button or a more complex heart rate sensor. — Grove System Wiki

And here it comes the GrovePi board. An awesome project, made possible by DexterIndustries, which allows to use the Grove sensors with the Raspberry Pi. GrovePi is OpenSource and has a growing set of libraries and examples in several languages (Python, C#, Node.js, Bash etc..) everything available on the DexterInd. GitHub repository.


Lego Mindstorms, BrickPi and RaspberryPi


Do you know or remember the Lego Mindstorms? The *EPIC* kit of sensors, motors, and Lego bricks which easily turns everyone into a robotic scientist? Well… thanks to DexterIndustries and its BrickPi board it’s possible to give a RaspberryPi brain to your Lego Robot. The only limit is your creativity. Also in this case there is a GitHub repository (Python version here) which hosts code and examples.


GoPiGo — the RaspberryPi Robot that goes!


If you don’t have a Lego Mindstorms kit, don’t worry! DexterInd., thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, has developed a build-your-own robot named GoPiGo. Easy to build, easy to understand, easy to hack, easy to program

Do you need some code or example to begin? As always, everything is on GitHub.


Little Bits


“LittleBits is the easiest way to learn and invent with electronics” they says on their website and, in fact, they provide kits for any kind of context:

  • Home automation
  • Analog music synthesizer creation
  • Space science
  • Custom hardware creation
  • Arduino coding

Each one of these seems to be an awesome product, based on the OpenSource philosophy with a huge community behind. If you need further informations here it is their official website.


Arduino & co.


Last but not least there is the Arduino project, born as an OpenSource micro-controller and easily grown becoming a (big) family of products for Makers. It’s not easy to put remarkable Arduino projects in a list just because there is a whole universe of projects and products based on Arduino but, in any case, if you love to experiment with electronics Arduino is a must. Just Google it and have fun!


To sum up

Technology is everywhere and we can’t ignore the fact that we need to learn to use it, to understand it and to control it at a lowest level as possible.

Technology can set us free especially when knowledge runs through it and, you know, knowledge is power.

In the past, technology was just for few people, lucky people… but now we have awesome technologies easy to access and if we ignore it is just an our choice.

There is a huge difference between “using machines” and “controlling machines”, the second one is the right path to follow otherwise, we’ll be fu*ked up.

Our kids are born with a natural tendency to be curious and bright and we are obliged to let these characteristics grow as mush as possible. Computers and machines are awesome tools to reach this goal but it’s so easy to become slave of them that the main effort should be put to avoid this through knowledge.

Stay hungry, stay foolish, but primarily … stay human.

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