Robot butterflies – a cautionary tale

Blc-Q2YCYAAMDyGIn his wonderful magical realism book One hundred years of solitude the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes a scene in which a young girl is surrounded by a cloud of butterflies fluttering around her. She is unafraid and entranced. article-2242598-1653D728000005DC-606_964x577Now imagine that the beautiful robot butterflies designed and made by Festo could be programmed to behave like this, fluttering around in such a way as to transport any human they surround to what might be described as a magical place. How marvellous would that be? Robotic-Butterfly-by-Festo-2You might even imagine that a literary young person who was studying D&T via the OCR GCSE specification might conceive of this as a possible solution to OCR’s exemplar contextual challenge of enhancing users’ experiences of public spaces. What a creative response! And by making contact with Festo the student might even be able to collaborate with their engineers in producing a prototype cloud of butterflies for deployment in a public place such as a park. But what of unintended consequences? Illah Nourbakhsh, Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a series of very engaging short stories in his book Robot Futures. They are all edifying with regard to the impact beyond intended benefit of robots in our society. In the story Robot Smog robot butterflies have been deployed in society for just this magical realism purpose but … the way the robot butterflies interact with humans is through eye contact. If you look at one or more of them they will flutter around your head making eye contact. And there is no off switch. They are powered via sunlight. When it gets dark they simply fall to the ground. Once the sun comes up they flutter off again seeking eye contact with humans. This has led to a situation where people walking in the park are afraid to look up and have taken to wearing sunglasses to avoid eye contact. I leave you to read about what else happens. So as with all things technological we need to be mindful of unintended consequences and ‘be careful what we wish for’. In my view Illah’s book would make excellent reading for Year 11 and above. I wonder how often we use these sorts of science fiction short stories to engage our students with the possible downsides as well as upsides of technology?

As always comments welcome


And now this – cyborg dragonflies produced by genetic engineering to act as drones – not exactly biomimicry more bio combination!


2 thoughts on “Robot butterflies – a cautionary tale

  1. They’re pretty big too – assuming the floor tiles are a typical size.
    As to uses – make them a bit smaller and surveillance seems an obvious route (though maybe that highlights the distinction between use and being useful?).
    Is it OK to mention that the last two editions of my Disruptive Technologies and D&T newsletter have focussed on first robotics and then drones?


  2. ‘Light’ being the operative word David. These things from Festo must weigh just a few grams! Once again this company comes up with something completely magical. I well remember the time a few years back we had Nigel Dawson from Festo give an excellent keynote at one of the D&T Association conferences. At the time they were playing with dolphins and a bird – which I think was the first autonomous manufactured bird to fly using wings for power. I also remember his response to the question someone asked him, about what would happen if the dolphin was allowed to swim in the sea rather than within the constraints of a swimming pool, containing obstructions which it was adept at negotiating. ‘Simple’ he said. ‘It would just bugger off and we’d never see it again.’
    In this world of artificial intelligence (AI) and sophisticated embedded control, drawing student’s attention to how a wide variety of robots are being developed to fulfil a variety of roles at an alarming rate is of great interest to them. Everyone’s job or at least part of it is likely to be either replaced by significantly affected by AI and robotics. Many of the uses for these have yet to be realised – take drones for example. I am sure many watched the Grenfell fire from the safety of their front room, fascinated by how fire brigade drones were being used as eyes in the sky, presumably to identify where in the inferno, there might still be people.
    On a personal level, I invested in my first serious robot 4 years ago. I bought a Husqvarna auto mower and it has saved me many hundreds of hours, costs a mere fraction of what I used to spend on petrol for my tractor mower, is completely autonomous being able to monitor whether its worth going out to mower not, irrespective of whether I’ve programmed it do so. In short in knows more about my lawns than I do. It also couldn’t care less about whether its dark or raining, it just gets on with the job taking itself off to its base station to replenish its supply of electrons whenever it needs to – about every couple of hours. On the rare occasion it slips a wheel down a hole usually due to rabbit or vermin activity, it can send me a text and I contact the neighbours if I’m abroad say, and they give it a helping hand.
    I have to confess that in years gone by, (and when I was still teaching in schools) getting students to build robots seemed to me to be a bit gratuitous. OK it was fun but what was the point? The point now is all too obvious and I’d go so far to say that unless we are teaching about them and providing experience of and opportunities to apply robotics, we are seriously short changing young people.
    Returning to the related theme of flight, Tim Brotherhood and I ran a workshop at the summer school on this, as we have been talking for some time abut the opportunities exploring aspect of flight both helicopter and fixed wing offers. In terms of STEM activity, it is of course very rich and it also has the attraction of being fun. I’m hoping in time and if I can secure some financial support we might be able to work it up into something.
    In the meantime, I’ll reflect on Festo’s latest creation and try and think what useful purposes this miniaturisation could be put to – as it undoubtedly will be before long. That of course would be something to get one’s students thinking about too. That is after one had them read them the story from Illah Nourbakhsh to set the scene not to mention good old Gabriel!

    Right my trains getting in. One day I guess even First Great Western Railway trains will be driverless too.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s