by | Dan Barry & Andy Barry, Former Astronaut, President and founder | Denbar Robotics Director and co-founder, 9th Sense Robotics
Fire & Smoke Passion
I dreamt to be an astronaut since I was a child. I had the opportunity to live at the end of a runway where I would hang off the chain fence and watched the airplanes went by daily. There was this driving passion about flight, space, and astronomy.
The motivation to be an astronaut changed during my lifetime. At first it was go fast with smoke and fire behind you, but as I grew older other layers were added; the intellectual layer; exploration layer; and the how to make a difference in the world layer.
Being a doctor or an engineer is very important, but being an astronaut was to push it a little past where it would have been if I hadn’t been here. Having gone to space, the bigger impact to the world is by going out inspiring kids; sharing with them my journey. There are a lot of astronauts in this world but I wanted to do something a little bit more. I inspired children to follow their dreams, to not give up, and to ensure they do not listen to the people who tell them they cannot do it.
Heroes and Inspirations
Astronauts of that time definitely inspired me. They were my big heroes. However, it is the family; the people you see every day, who love you, encourage you, and teach you; that make a real difference. My father died when I was really young, and my three elder sisters really took care of me. One of my elder sisters was married to an engineer and he was the one who taught me how interesting solving mathematical puzzles could be. He showed me the beauty of building things based on mathematics which really directed the rest of my academic career.
The Neurone interest
After I finished working with NASA, I developed the idea and interest in knowing how the brain works. It would be an interesting accomplishment to build a machine smart enough to sense and understand the world to the point where it became aware of itself. So I started a project in my basement.
My wife who is a neuroscientist said: “Putting a brain in a box is not going to work” and she brought me out to see the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, trees and grass. She said: “The difference between the trees and grass, and all those kind of creatures is that the things that run around and move have a brain, but for things that neither interact nor move and do not influence the environment does not have a brain. Filling a box that cannot move, interact or do anything with the world is never going to have a need for a brain”.
Another example; the sea squirt (Tunicate) – sea creatures that swim around in their larvae stage but upon becoming adults attach themselves to a coral or to the bottom of the sea and consume their brains as they will remain stationary for the rest of their life and have no need for their brains because they will not swim around anymore.
It was a huge insight to me that movements are tied to cognition. This meant that I had to build a robot because that is the only way it can manipulate, sense, and be in the world. That is the only way to get something to recognise it exists.
Thus my big goal is to create a machine intelligence that knows it exists!
Robotic intelligence is an interesting concern. There are definitely needs for safety features and rules to safe guard us. However, looking at where robots are today, we are far from robotic invasion or empowerment; if my robot tries to take over the world all we have to do is close the door and it cannot get out of the room.
At the level we are at today, robots aren’t smart enough and it will be a while before it is, but eventually these are the things we are going to have to confront. We may not know when something becomes aware of its existence because we do not know where in the animal kingdom creatures have self-awareness. There is no test that identifies where in the animal kingdom things know they exist.
I think there is a dim wakening, a spectrum that’s going to happen with Artificial Intelligence (AI), we will not recognize it and when we do, it will not be recognition as much as attribution. People will say “this robot acts enough like a human, it shall be attributed with self-awareness”, as opposed to the robot saying “hey I’m awake”. Therefore, in reality, robots are mostly going to be kind of dumb.
However, the idea of equipping robots with weapons is a bad one. But it is a growing trend with military robots. This is more from the aspects of autonomy of the weapon system. The concept works by which if a robot has a lot of restrictions and protection against it firing by mistake; it would be a slow and careful robot. So a robot with less safety features is faster and more attractive, but then the opponents will be prone to making their robots with lesser safety feature to combat this. Soon enough we are giving the robots the authority to shoot without asking. This is a concern of safety feature but not from the AI perspective, and we do need to work on this.
Singularity University | 10⁹+ Team Projects
The 10⁹+ project created by Singularity University aimed at bringing together people interested in rapidly changing technology in a variety of fields. The first basic premise is to increase information technology that can be used to further increase information technology, creating an exponential curve, changing that technology fast as it builds upon itself. This is also a useful tool for predicting what and where technology will be in the future. For example, 3-4 years ago I designed a robot that uses sensor costing USD1000 knowing that I can sell my robot at USD100 after 3 to 4 years of research as the sensors will be 1/10th the price it was. Being able to predict the state of technology enables good R&D decision making, because to choose R&D based on today’s technology would make it out-dated in 3 to 4 years.
The second premise is to use rapidly changing technology to address the major kinds of challenges such as poverty, water, energy and agriculture; finding the technological solutions towards issues that are going to become or are already serious issues for humanity.
This project is a 10 weeks summer programme that brings together a group of about 80 students typically in their late 20-ties or early 30-ties with a driving passion to change the world, ready to leave their jobs or completely change direction and do something that has an impact. This programme is not about a one way communication where the students are taught and then told to do things; instead it is where we do things together. It is their motivation, curiosity and drive that inspire me. To say that I can help them reach their goal reenergizes me. I go there to learn from them and share their passion. In fact, 9th Sense Company which we started a year ago came from this summer programme’s students and teaching fellows.
Sentinel parents-empowered children
My son was taking apart objects from two years old and I’m not sure how much we influenced him as much as we just enabled his choices. It is okay to break objects or fail because how are you going to learn if everything works right the first time. If everything works right the very first time will make you lazy and not try hard enough. As an example, it is a bit daunting to have this overriding goal to be an engineer, but if it is simplified into smaller pieces and from a young age of 4-5 years the child takes up small activities relevant to engineering it will enable the child’s development.
As parents, we are not set out to specifically inspire our children. For instance, my daughter did not have an immediate passion for engineering when she was younger. She enjoyed interesting puzzle-solving, so I would give her puzzles to keep her challenged. It is important to challenge them intellectually. If you really listen to your children they will tell you what they really want to do. The big key is listening to what they want to say because we tend to tell our kids so much stuff. Sometimes we should step back to watch what they are interested in.
A match from heaven
The projects I worked on were not done to push my children to become engineers; they were simply projects that I liked. Neither did I do dumb-down projects thinking the children will not understand it. Instead, I did sophisticate projects of my interest, and when they wanted to participate, I found ways to give them bits and pieces that they were capable of. Doing the project together was a lot of fun. This never felt like an obligation to ensure my children would learn. Instead, it was more of me wanting to do projects and that they were welcome to join, and that kept me excited.
My wife would take apart biological systems in the same way. She dissects creatures and so on. She inserted electrodes in individual cells of creatures’ brains and figured out the process by which these cells would change and learn things. We are the curious bunch and love solving puzzles in our own way – biologically and mechanically. I think we have almost a complete family.
Books our Bonding Agents
I read books to my children. Since we lived apart due to work, I would call them and talk for over an hour plus. I chose the books, especially at the beginning, because they would either choose books I wasn’t interested in or that have been read. If you are going to read your children books, do not read them children books that they like because you will not look forward to reading the book. The idea of engaging the children in things that you enjoy is the way to keep you interested and excited. It also about being transparent to the kids, they know when parents are bored and only pretending to do something interesting with them. However, if it is something that you are intrinsically interested and the kids join, that is a much more powerful approach.
Happiness is the Key
When you find what keeps you going without a care of how tired you are, and that you just keep on doing it, is an indication that you have found the key to happiness. Number one is to find “that thing”, to the extent that even if it doesn’t involve monetary value you still do it. But, of course, getting somebody to pay you a little bit to do it would make it more meaningful.
Fly With Your Dreams
The interest in engineering was actually geared by my father. Although he never directed me to be an engineer or a scientist, he was the one who influenced me. He taught me that engineering can be really fun and exciting. It was about solving new puzzles, and when I purposely messed up or broke something we would try fix it back again together. I absolutely want to fly like my father, but I just do not want to impact the world just a little bit, I want to make a big impact. I find that robotics is going to do just that, and I want to be one of those people who make it happen. Additionally I have wanted to build robots for as long as I remember. That is very much the reason why I wanted to become and why I became an engineer.
One of the first robots I built constituted of getting a robotic truck with the controller rewired so that my father can drive it throughout the house. A camera was strapped on the top. Unfortunately the robot barely worked, but the lessons learnt taught me how fun engineering was and how to do those things based on projects. The overall success was questionable but the amount that we learned and the amount I was inspired from it mattered a lot.
Currently I am doing my PhD work on autonomous flight: designing aircraft about 70 cm wing span to fly through a forest. This is an interesting goal because it allows us to understand how robots are made to do complex dynamic manoeuvres that will enable it to dodge all the trees through a forest.
Our laboratory is a basic science laboratory and, with it, we are trying to understand how to make robots or flight system in general fly and move better. Our goal is very concentrated, that is to make this airplane fly through that forest, and this allows us to focus on the problems that really matters. With two algorithms that theoretically appear good, it is hard to tell which one is better when on paper. Algorithms are sensitive to factors in the real world such as small noises in the sensors and how the wind blows. These algorithms are put to test on the planes, and the one that rips the wings off first is the less preferred of both. It is all about the basic underlying algorithm that says this is how your robot works better with less motors and sensors, because that is what makes your robots cheaper and better. This works for all robots, planes and rockets and that is the real goal.
The broken helicopters story…hence I learn
One of my favourite parts about our workshop is that we break a lot of helicopters and it is okay because we bring extras. We watch and let the people wire the circuits in ways that we know are wrong, causing the circuits to blow up. This is where they learn a lot from, because people remember when they blow up the chips and that’s where real learning happens.
Having more practical terms of education is a huge advantage. This brings about a good point as to why the workshop is really important. The workshop practices a completely hands-on approach with only a couple of minutes spent briefing the students and hours that the students spend on programming.
Hands-on education is where the future of engineering education is going and is really important. A good example is in first year my friend and me were working on a project to float a magnet through building a control system, but we had no idea how to achieve this. To solve this problem we started paying full attention and sat at the front rows of the next lecture and read notes from the previous lecture, and we managed to do it. It is these small hands-on puzzles that have driven my education from earlier on. Hands-on approach is more motivating and valuable, making education more fun and engaging.
The Knack for Projects
It is good to do projects. Find something you want to work on and do it. For instance, I taught myself the first C programming language when I embarked on a goal to make the web server work in the hot and stuffy attic. It was a success. Although the goal was insignificant, it created a lot of curiosity and added to the things I wanted to learn.
When you do projects, you understand and realise what being an engineer or a doctor is all about. Being a doctor or an engineer isn’t easy, but engaging in things that we really enjoy makes us good at it and, in turn, enables us to become good doctors and engineers. The reason why these people in our workshop are good engineers and scientist is because they enjoy it. They are enthusiastic about it, and they stay up until 2 am in the morning willingly, and it is these people that are really good. Finding out what keeps you up until 2 to 3 in the morning is really hard, but once you do it is amazing.
Enliven passion of mutual interest
It was not only engineering projects that I was limited to, neither should all credit go to my father. One of my experience was when I was a freshman engineering student, we were faced-up with an oscilloscope; a screen with a bunch of knobs and dials that looked very intimidating for the first time. Not everybody knew how to work this machine, but I knew exactly how to operate it. I recalled experimenting on it when I was much younger. At that a time I was bored, and my mother wanted to distract me so she came up with this game that was to mess the oscilloscope in the worst possible ways then see if she could fix it which, of course, was she would fix it all. Each time I would learn ways to make it harder for mother and, by doing that, I learnt what each knob and dial did. So, although at the time I learnt how to use an oscilloscope I was not aware that I will face it in my career, it was these experience that also boosted my education knowledge and helped me out.
The idea is not to have a set goal and achievement that you wish to instil in your child, otherwise when 2 am comes your child would want to go to bed. However, if the project is something you enjoy, 2 am will come and you will be enthusiastically staying up with your child to keep doing it.
Even though I am not a parent yet, but when the time comes, I’ll do as what my father did. It was to pick something he really liked to do and share it with the children. Your children will see that you are excited and you’ll be really good at it because you like it.