life lessons from boozy bots

CocktailBender My 6-year-old son, Benjamin, is asking when we will start to build robots together. A friend of mine is talking about starting a robotics club in the Charlottesville area, and I think Benjamin is now picturing us creating the autonomous bots and droids of science fiction. I’m trying to lower his expectations a bit, first by introducing him to programming through MIT’s wonderful Scratch system and iPad games like CargoBot, Cato’s Hike, Kodable, and Benjamin’s favorite: A.L.E.X.

So when I saw something on Hulu.com the other night about “Team Robotics,” I had to take a quick look. Hulu immediately warned me, “This video is intended for mature audiences.”

Really? Would this turn out to be some sci-fi fantasy about gynoid sexbots? That sure wasn’t the impression I was getting from the picture of Team Robotics: three middle-aged men who looked ready to build a house or fix a car.

TeamRoboticsOnRaisingTheBarMaybe the mature-audience warning was because the show, Raising the Bar, turns out to be a short reality series sponsored by George Dickel Whiskey. The show is centered around a competition George Dickel held last October at the American Royal World Series of BBQ in Kansas City, Missouri. The goal:  each team of craftsmen has to build from scratch "the ultimate bar" in 8 hours and serve shots of the sponsor’s intoxicant. 

Or maybe the M rating was because of the commercial interruptions for Trojan Condoms — of which there were an annoying amount for a less-than-12-minute video (an annoying amount of commercials, not an annoying amount of condoms). I would give both the show and the ads a G rating, except for the grown-up products being hawked. 

(Gone are the days when Fred Flintstone could hype Winston cigarettes.)

While my mature-audience mind fails to see any justification for the warning, my homeschooling-father mind is grateful for it. The booze itself isn’t a problem. Benjamin and I have been talking about the allures and dangers of liquor since I read him the scene in Treasure Island where Billy Bones dies from drinking too much rum, despite Dr. Livesey’s very specific warning of the consequences. As was the case for me at his age, Benjamin is much clearer on the potentially poisonous nature of demon rum than he is on the possible appeal of drinking it. (Although he does want to know how soon he can taste wine. French mom, you know.)

But I’m not quite ready to explain prophylactics to a 6-year-old boy.

It’s a shame, because I think this episode would be educational and inspiring for him. It doesn’t teach us much about robotics per se — almost nothing, in fact — but it presents several other lessons I care about Benjamin learning:

  1. High-tech innovation is a real possibility, even for a hobbyist.

    The guys of Team Robotics aren’t professional roboticists, just "makers," people with a passion for putting things together in new ways. They didn’t buy a gizmo to serve drinks; they built one. The result was "inspired by bits and parts of other machines," team-leader Mike explained. "It’s not like you can buy any of the stuff we’ve made off the shelf; it just doesn’t exist. People don’t sell off-the-shelf, aluminum combined bar-tending robots."

    In fact, the one piece of equipment they had that already looked robotic (a "retooled tape-exchanger device") failed to work! I’ll come back to that failure in my final point, below.

  2. Division of labor is the key to teamwork.

    Some day I do plan to sit down with Benjamin and go over some of the typical charts that are used to illustrate the concept of comparative advantage (which Ludwig von Mises called the “law of association,” a term I find much more helpful), but I want to wait until I know he’ll be comfortable with the very little math involved. Maybe he is already, but I don’t think there’s a great hurry.

    Meanwhile, I think what’s more important than the typical emphasis for kids on teamwork is the recognition that the best team includes a variety of skills and abilities, some of them less sexy than others. 

    RobinsonFridayComparativeAdvantage

    Of the three men in Team Robotics, only two of them seemed to know anything about robots: Mike, the team leader and computer programmer, and Steve, a machinist. Team member #3, gray-haired Vince, was the carpenter. The show announced that he was the team’s engineer, but all we saw him do was work with wood. His job was to build the bar stools to seat the judges, and the bar from behind which the robotic contender would serve the final shots. 

    The show contrasted the roboticists and the carpenter with different background music during their montages: hard-driving synth rock for the high-tech pair; slow, lazy hillbilly banjo for the woodworker. Slick versus poky. But Mike and Steve clearly trusted Vince to take care of the bar itself, a structure that had to safely support judge, host, and robot. If the robot hadn’t poured the whiskey properly, the team’s effort would have been a bust. But if Vince’s handmade bar, built from scratch in 8 hours, hadn’t done its job, the robot would have been just so many wires and gears spinning without purpose. To me, Vince was the quiet hero of Team Robotics.

  3. Salvage Time!

    This third lesson is really two lessons under one label. Having a Plan B means planning ahead with contingencies in mind, but it also means dealing with adversity and failure with flexibility and perseverance.

    Halfway through the show, Mike and Steve discovered that their batteries didn’t have enough juice to power the robotic arm that was central to their design.

    Mike: "So we go home now?"

    Steve: "I wish."

    Mike: "Might as well: it ain’t gonna work. We can’t pick up glasses; we can’t deliver."

    Break for Trojan ad.

    When we return from commercial, the host announces in voice-over, "Three hours into the build, Team Robotics is in trouble."

    Mike: "Salvage time. Set 3 glasses in the right spots. Ignore the arm. Somehow mount the pump so it drives to each spot.…"

    Steve: "I like it!"

    Mike: "Alright. We got a compromise."

    For me this was the key moment of the show. First, despair and resignation. A moment later, innovation and enthusiasm. I wonder how long that transition really took. The commercial break acted as a dramatic intermission, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike and Steve moved from defeat to renewed striving rather quickly. They were on the clock.

    Which brings up a sort of side lesson. These contests create artificial constraints. Why 8 hours? Why such small teams? Why not let the guys go home and get a better power supply? In the real world, designers and builders have all sorts of flexibility. They can have a Plan C, Plan D, etc. But first of all, the real world also offers what can feel like absurd restraints and deadlines. Being able to deal with silly contest rules is similar to being able to deal with silly real-world rules. Secondly, innovation happens under stress. That’s descriptively true of real innovators, but it’s also something I want to promote in Benjamin and in myself: the ability to respond to stress with ingenuity instead of resignation. Salvage time.

    Salvage is, in a sense, what these hobbyists were up to from the beginning. Their original design was, as Mike said, "inspired by bits and parts of other machines." But when that design failed, they had to salvage the bits and parts of something more abstract: their original plan. Part of it didn’t work, but they didn’t scrap the whole thing. They figured out how to take the parts that did work and reconfigure them into a different design that would achieve the same goal. I find that move heroic, and I’d like it to be part of my son’s mental and emotional toolset from an early age.

At the end of the show, "master of whiskey" Gerry Graham, seated comfortably on one of Vince’s newly built cowhide barstools, holding up a shot glass of George Dickel whiskey, poured and served by Mike and Steve’s newly built robot, toasts the team and the sponsor, and describes the results of the team’s efforts as "Really, really cool!"

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