I was introduced to Erin of RobotGrrl.com through my favorite tech news site, robots.net. She is the creator of Styrobots, and Robbie the Robot, a downloadable program capable of having a conversation with you. Erin, an eleventh grade student from Canada, has received the great honor and privilege of being accepted into Stanford's EPGY Artificial Intelligence Program. To raise money for the $3700 USD program, Erin has been selling her homemade Styrobots. After being referenced by robots.net, Stanford awarded her a $1500 scholarship and her fundraising efforts yielded about $1000 more. Her deadline has since been extended to June 13th, 2008, which is fast approaching. I fully support her enthusiasm in robotics and her go-getter attitude towards it. I decided to interview her, to find out more details about how she became so interested in robotics and learn about her dreams and goals for the future.
Video of Erin making her Styrobots
RoboJenny: Let me first say that I am very impressed that you are raising the money to fund your enrollment into the Stanford program through making and selling your Styrobots. How did you first come up with the idea of Styrobot?
Erin: I always had it in the back of my mind after I made a BristleBot. It would be as easy as building a BristleBot, more fun and genuinely hand-made!
RoboJenny: Very fun! To you, what's the definition of a robot?
Erin: Mine is a little different than all the other definitions, but it is: "An ethical machine that can fulfill a purpose automatically". This is why my Styrobots are robots, they are ethical and fulfill a purpose at the touch of a switch. Of course, Styrobot's purpose is to only 'look cool and move', it still fulfills it. As long as the robot obeys the three laws of robotics in equal strength, I believe that it is ethical.
RoboJenny: What sparked your interest in robotics in the first place?
Erin: My first encounter with robotics was when I was around 2. I had a Snoopy 'doll' that could 'sing' when a tape was put into his back. I was always interested in the mouth motor and what controlled it. One day, I took the tape out and pulled all of the tape out of it and told my mom! 'Look, I fixed it!'.
RoboJenny: After that, what made you decide to go into robotics?
Erin: I'm always interested in how things work and why. Believe it or not, my first interest in robotics was ignited after seeing a TV show that toured CSAIL (at MIT). I had no idea that any place existed! There were computers and robots galore, all inside of a cool looking building (that was before it got all oozy and leaky). I began taking robotics more seriously after that, as my goal is to research robots.
RoboJenny: Do you think that girls are less interested in robotics? And why if so?
Erin: I think that many girls, compared to guys, are not interested in robotics primarily because of the stereotypes surrounding it. Generally, if you enjoy making robots or "geeky" things, you're tagged as an isolated person with no friends and no life. This of course, is definitely not true. Girls are interested in robotics as they can see the potential, and they can also see things that the guys can't. For example, girls in general care about the wires being covered up on a robot. Most guys don't, and some even think it's cool to have wires hanging out! (Blech!) To put it short, girls like to stylize. We know sociable robotics better than anyone else, as we're natural socializers. :) We can also see how humans interact better than guys. Grrrrl powerrrrr!
RoboJenny: What can be done to encourage people into the field?
Erin: For girls, I would suggest a robotics kit that has pretty colours, no sharp edges or soldering required, that comes with free beanie babys. Off the top of my head, a potential kit that I can think of is a "Convertible Beanie-Mobile", where you could program the car to avoid the walls, observe lighting conditions to turn on the lights, do wheelies or figure eights. The wheels could be taken off and swapped for new ones, same with the shell of the car. The seats would be perfectly fitted for a beanie baby, and have seat belts. The programmer would be a top-down GUI design. Sort of like the Robotics Invention System 2.0! I think that would catch my eye if I was 6-8 years old! For guys, I would make more of a variety of pieces available for the LEGO Mindstorms NXT. I believe that, in general, guys are satisfied with LEGO Robotics!
RoboJenny: Great ideas. How did you personally learn about robotics?
Erin: Wow, what a giant question! The short of it is that I learned bits and pieces everywhere. I started out by playing neopets. You collect items, feed your pet, play games. However, you can also sell items in a shop. This shop can also be decorated, but only by HTML. This is where I independently learned HTML and CSS. After creating a few websites, my grandma purchased a LEGO RCX 2.0 Robotics kit for me for the summer! It was really fun. I had trouble understanding it at first, but it was really easy. School began, and I was in the robotics option. We used LEGO RCX 1's, and invented lots of stuff with it. That same year I was presented with an amazing internship opportunity with an online chatroom/role-playing game. I created a lot of media, like podcasts, videos, ezines, with that opportunity. After that year, I was in a 1-on-1 Advanced Robotics class, where I learned Java and php/mySQL. That was really fun! That same year I created a robot that could count skittles and compare the difference between a light sensor and a touch/ weight sensor. It was a team science fair project, and we won gold at both the school fair and the regional fair. I programmed the LEGO RCX in NQC, as the GUI was becoming more and more unbearable. Half-way into the next year, I was in a 1-on-1 computer class again. I was able to work on my various projects, help with other projects around, and get feedback. I was creating Robbie the Robot the first half of that year too, which was a human-machine vocal conversation program for Mac OS 10.5. I also learned about Arduino, and learned how to solder! During the class, which was the 2nd half of the year, I worked on Arduino and Processing a lot. I also tried to get Arduino working via the command line on Ubuntu. All in all, I learned from experience!
RoboJenny: Sounds great that your school offers robotics courses!
Erin: Yes! I actually believe that my high-school has one of the most in depth computer science/robotics courses of them all.
RoboJenny: Do you have a mentor or someone who helps advise you in your robotics work?
Erin: Yes and no. I had a mentor from McGill for my Robbie the Robot project. She helped break down what I wanted to do into sizable chunks! I also had a mentor from California to help me with learning Objective-C and all the crazy syntax errors. My computer science teacher would always provide input on any of my projects. Also, my Dad helps me not make too many 'blonde mistakes' in my projects. Additionally, my Mom helps me make sure that normal people can understand what I'm doing!
RoboJenny: What do you see for yourself in terms of college and jobs in the future?
Erin: In college I see myself studying everything that I enjoy, then eventually funneling down into a precise topic. I like Robotics a lot, but I also enjoy Physics. I want to do research and development of AI and Robotics, practically living at a university! It would be really cool to pass on my knowledge to other people, while building robots. If that goal doesn't work out, I'd want to work at the JPL designing Martian robots. If that didn't work out, I'd want to be an animator for Pixar. Or, I could design robots of the characters in their movies for the Disney themeparks, which would sort of make me an Imagineer. There are lots of possibilities and opportunities! One of my goals, though, is to make a panel that deems a robot ethical or unethical. This thought is very futuristic though, but it would be easy to implement now, instead of worrying about it later. We need solid rules about what a robot can and cannot do. I also want to make a high-school that is #1 for innovation and robotics named 'Robotics Academy'. It would be 50% males and 50% females, with small class sizes and every student has a Linux laptop. The course would be 25% humanities and English, 25% math, 25% computers/robotics and 25% independent studies. There would also be 3 recess breaks to promote activity, instead of always studying!
RoboJenny: Well good luck on your plans! I hope to be blogging about your great accomplishments in a few years. Thanks for letting me interview you.
Erin: Thanks a bunch for the interview!
You can make a donation to Erin through her website for her program, or support her by buying her Styrobots!
Update: Congrats to Erin for raising enough money for her AI Program! Thank you everyone who joined in to support the young female roboticist!!