Narrative, Creativity, and Evolution

My students are finishing up Hayles, My Mother was a Computer.

Some years go, I remember seeing a video of a little girl in a martial arts uniform, barking out “Know what you want! Make a plan! Add a role model! Review your progress!” over and over again, while kicking, chopping and spinning. Her philosophy ought to be ours, too!

Evolved Virtual Creatures

Scratch Implemention of Conway’s Game of Life

We have seen several cases in which authors of fiction had already worked out a complex social reaction to a technological innovation, even before that innovation existed. Artificial life is another area where literary authors have paved the way. The word Robot comes from a work of fiction.

In 1919, Czech author Karel Capek was writing a social satire about a world in which the existence of lab-created workers completely changed the meaning of labor. His creatures were biological, not clanking contraptions of nuts and bolts; his brother Joseph suggested the name “robot,” which borrows from a Czech word that means medial labor (“sh*twork” might be a good synonym). The play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) was an international smash hit, and lodged the new word “robot” in languages across the globe (edging out terms like “automaton”).

That play invented the “humans invent artificial beings to make life easier, the artificial beings learn from humans how to hate, the artificial humans turn on us and destroy us” plot, which has since then been replayed over and over in countless different varieties. (Previous artificial creatures, like The Tin Man of Oz, or Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, had been one-time creations, but Kapek’s innovation was to add an assembly line.)

In January-March, my son was part of a team of kids who built a robot as part of a contest.

The event starts with regional meetings around the country and around the world, as teams learn what kind of a robot they’ll have to build. This year, the robots had to compete in a game based on basketball, with the ability to score additional points by balancing on a bridge.

Here is how our robot began its life, as loose parts in boxes.

Over the next few weeks, we got it to work, bit by bit.

We were a rookie team, and did not end up scoring any points in our first outing, but here is some footage from a different regional event. This team’s video emphasizes how the environment encourages a feedback loop — you make an effort, assess the results, improvisation.

As part of this contest, teams must cooperate with other in randomly-chosen alliances. You earn points not just for scoring baskets, but also for being able to work in such a way that helps the whole team succeed.

Since you don’t know until the day of the competition what team you’ll be allied with during a given match, this is a contest that doesn’t so much reward the ability to put balls in hoops; it’s a competition that rewards the ability to work as a team.

(See “gracious professionalism” and “co-opertition” — a culture that encourages and rewards helping your competitors, so that the end result is that everybody advances much faster than if all the resources only went to a small number of winners.)