We’ve all seen movies with highly-advanced and terrifyingly deadly artificial life. Terminator, Blade Runner, the Matrix – we all know that robots are going to take over and engage biological life forms in a war where our very existence is on the line. At the very least, they’ll take an approach more similar to the Geth from Mass Effect and be content with merely driving us off our own planet (though I won’t go into the gray moral area that is that subplot). Thankfully, none of us will live to see that war… right?
Well, unfortunately for everyone who expects to live up to, and/or past, the year 2040, humans have been predicted to be competing for almost every job imaginable with robots. Self-driving cars are expected to be mainstream, call centers will be full automated (though hopefully they’ll be a bit more advanced than automated answering services we have today), etc. As a possible argument for those who think that this will mark the end of humanity, by then biotic implants will allow our hands and minds to work as fast as our mechanical counterparts, according to the Daily Mail. Of course, the sci-fi writer in me would counter that counter by saying that these implants will make human beings hack-able, but that’s beside the point.
The bottom line is, the world is continuing to evolve and technology is advancing at a remarkable rate. Keeping up with it is the best way to take advantage of these changes rather than letting the machines take over, but just looking at a screen filled with complicated code makes most people want to go take a nap, and I get it. Coding can be incredibly complicated and if you don’t have a basic understanding of what you’re doing, it can make your head spin. So how do we learn how to speak with machines without getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to learn?
This is the question that multiple different products available today seek to answer. One of these products is called “Hour of Code” and it makes programming into a game that any child could figure out. With various themes like Minecraft, Star Wars, and The Amazing World of Gumball, the lessons simplify coding into what look like puzzle pieces. Assembling these pieces in different ways renders different results, and you’re instructed to use them in order to attain certain goals. While this may feel like it’s a long way away from the lightning-fast typing of green words on a black background that allows a hacker to break into one mainframe or another, it more than lays the groundwork for someone to learn all they need to about coding.
Other products couple coding with robotics right off the bat. In middle school I took a robotics class that used LEGO Mindstorms and related tech. We would build our robot out of LEGO bricks and then upload code that we wrote ourselves in order to make it achieve whatever goal our teacher had laid out for us that day. I later learned that the Mindstorm actually comes with an adventure story which presents scenarios that certain configurations and programs can navigate your robot through, guiding the user through the various functions and capabilities of the robot they’ve built.
Another product, which I recently got to play with at WonderLab, is called “Cubelets.” While these may look like toys, and are certainly fun to play with, a starter pack sells for over $4,000 – they are not stocking-stuffers by any means. Each individual cube can fit in the palm of your hand, however, and each has a specific property. Some cubes have sensors, from proximity to sound. Others have wheels, allowing them to move. There is a ridiculous variety in the types of cubes, and each has magnets on several sides, allowing them to be attached and configured in any number of ways. This form of robotics, called “modular robotics,” allows two users to use the exact same equipment in completely different ways.
Using any of these tools, a person can learn how to write a program and see it executed by a robot they built themselves. Though this won’t teach us how to fight and win a war against the machines, it can at the very least give us a leg up in a world that relies more and more on digital content each day.
Samuel Zlotnick is 23 years old and is a self-described “scifi/fantasy geek”. He just began an internship at WonderLab in its Marketing/PR department which he feels will compliment his eventual Bachelor’s Degree in Professional & Technical Writing. He’s enjoyed learning from Hour of Code and the Cubelets available at WonderLab, but nevertheless welcomes our revered robot overlords.