A friend of mine had a T-shirt which said, ‘I thought this was the future?! Where is my jet pack? Where is my food in pill form? Where is my helper robot?’ And a whole host of thoughts like that. Well, the robots have arrived, in my house at least.
On one side of the room I’m reading, writing and theorizing about social exclusion, the healthcare system and local governance.
On the other side of the room, the DH is building a robot. Here’s a video of the robot picking up a screw driver. This robot has 5 degrees of freedom (DOF) much like the human arm which has 7 degrees of freedom. This robot is made from Mechano pieces (a kids toy kit). Go to settings on you tube (wheel symbol on the bottom right of the video screen) and adjust to the quality your internet connection can handle.
The DH made this robot using an ARDUINO (pronounced ARD-WE-NO) which is an open-source tool that anyone who is interested in electronics but who has little knowledge of computer programming can use to build and create any thing they want. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t either.
On their website they describe ARDUINO as ” an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.” It is essentially a microcontroller on a small board that can be programmed to do the functions you want it to, allowing you to control simple devices to complex satellite equipment. It’s like the brains in most devices that you get to tell what to do. You can buy an ARDUINO from http://www.robotics.co.in starting from Rs.400.
There are thousands of applications and some of their best are on the site Instructables and will give you a better idea of the things you are capable of building using an Arduino. Take the guy who had two cats, one which was on a special diet and the other who was not supposed to eat the special diet. So using an ARDUINO, some wires, a cardboard box and a sensor from an old CD Player, he rigged up a system where the side of the cardboard box with the bowl of special diet would only open when it recognised the sensor on the collar of the cat that needed the special food. Or the woman who made a bike riding jacket with indicator signals on the back so that other motorists can see when you are turning – it’s washable too! Or the ‘Garduino’ which senses the moisture and PH of the soil and either feeds your plants nutrients or saves water as required.
For a better explanation of the millions of applications for an ARDUINO, please watch this excellent and inspiring TED Talk by one of the Arduino creators, Massimo Banzi.
If you are not interested in how ARDUINO works or that it uses a programming language that is so easy that little children and octogenarians are learning it, then all you need to know is that it is open-source. Open source is a philosophy that promotes free access and license to use a product’s design and blueprint. So the Operating System I’m using right now, Linux, is open source. There is no copyright, no licensing, no one is getting millions of dollars with the use of every LINUX download. It is a collaboration of knowledge, a bartering of ideas with the a never-ending goal of improvement. Millions of programmers and open source believers spend their waking hours writing codes that anyone can use for a myriad of applications. Take for example, the difficulty I have getting access to journal articles. You have to pay for research knowledge, sometimes upto $60 for an article. This is a horrid form of exclusion. I’m not saying that people should not get paid for their ideas, I’m asking how much is too much that keeps knowledge in the hands of the few.
Open source on the other hand, is an equity of knowledge. Anyone, on any technology can fully access how something is made and then improve on it.
People who use products like Windows do not realise that they are slaves to what Microsoft wants them to use and how they want you to use it. A small example, unless you download a bunch of codecs, Windows Media Player does not play MP4 files. An even simpler application: Windows does not allow you to password protect a folder. In a linux or open source based OS, I can download any type of application I want, any time of source code and run a variety of operations that Windows will never allow me to do. Glyn Moody who wrote the book Rebel Code about the open source revolution says about ideas that are not open source, “I won’t let you understand how this works; I’m going to keep you helplessly dependent on me and if you share it with your friends, I’ll call you a pirate and put you in jail.”
If open source is an equity of knowledge then ARDUINO is the tool of empowerment. The tools we use in our daily life are designed by someone else and we can only use it for the purpose it was intended. I cannot change the functions of my blender or vaccum cleaner. I cannot safety proof my house without buying an expensive burglar alarm system. There is no market and no product out there for the guy who needed to feed only one of his cats a special diet. Bringing it down to grassroots, there are some needs of a specific village in specific environmental conditions that are so niche yet so vital to their way of life but those solutions are not profitable for large companies to cater to their needs. This is where open source and tools like ARDUINO come in. It’s taking an idea and saying, why not. ARDUINO goes a step towards ‘owning the means of production’
I understand that for a majority of people, the computer and the internet itself, irrespective of what OS you use, is liberating. But in another way, up till now we have been slaves to the technology given to us and we just accepted the world to be that way. Big companies make products through fancy complicated processes and we pay money to enjoy the convenience of that product. But the world is changing. People are using technology to create bespoke solutions and universally applicable ideas that are free. And there are more of those people out there than you think.
Even if you are not going to start building things tomorrow or ever, take a look at the TED video and Instructable site and just be inspired to do that one thing or many things that you’ve been hesitant to try. You are only limited by your imagination. In all our lives at some point we’ve said, “I wish I had a device that could do this.” Well, it’s here. Even if you can’t build it there are forums to post your ideas and an entire open source community that can either build it for you or help you build it.
I’ll soon be starting a wordpress site dedicated to the DH’s robotic and Arduino adventures, hoping it will draw a more tech oriented audience than this blog probably does.
Till then you can type this into your FIREFOX browser: about:robots
Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!