The beauty of bots – Duncan Gough interview in full

ara2I have recently started writing a column for Brandwatch, a digital insights agency with a global profile. I’ve been writing about the digital-related things I feel people are talking about these days, and supporting my column with Brandwatch’s own data analytics software. It’s all very interesting and enjoyable!

My latest column is about bots. As you may know, I am able to muster very little interest in any actually useful technology, but bots seem like a rich mine for creativity that we’ve really only just started on. You can read the word-limited version, here, but a couple of my interviewees – Duncan and George, got back to me with such interesting and thorough answers that I’d be doing you, and them, a disservice not to share the full things.

Duncan is an old friend of mine. We have invented many things together over the years, including a game about a telephone operator in space, a time travelling robot, a haunted computer museum, and an immersive James Joyce experience, precisely none of which ever got made. Duncan now works at the V&A Museum as their Technical Lead, which feels both unimaginably impressive and a bit of a waste.

As you’ll see, though, he’s been making a load of really great stuff in his spare time. I only ever held him back.

Tell us about some of the bots you’ve made

The first bot I made ran on AIM and MSN, and was just an interface to my website. I could paste links in chat and have them appear on my website, so I found it really useful. The most satisfying thing was building in a Bayes component that could handle spelling mistakes and variations of commands. Being able to train it gave me a greater sense of having built something smart. I tidied up the code a while back and put it on GitHub. Since then I get one or two enquiries every year from students studying Python and AI/ML, who build their own projects with the code.

After that I built two twitter bots, one for commuting and the other for awareness. The commute bot knew what trains I took most often, and would watch the timetables to send me a direct message whenever my train was delayed. The number of times I was ready to catch a train, only to receive a DM just before I left, meant that I ended up saving myself plenty of time that wasn’t wasted hanging around on a train platform in the cold.

The awareness bot was send me a message at random times throughout the week, and ask a simple question – “What are you worried about?”. I’d answer privately, and being able to describe whatever thought was stuck on my mind was very useful. I don’t think I ever felt the need to review the things that were on my mind, because being able to name and almost discard them was the real key.

Lately I’ve been thinking more about the internet of things, and why it annoys me. I decided that the utilitarian nature of the things I saw as IoT annoyed me more than anything, and that I should build something fuaranction-less, and beautiful. I made Ara from an old Raspberry Pi, a cardboard speaker from Muji, a birdcage from ebay and a hand-made bird from Etsy. She’s a bird who can sing. She makes her own songs each day, and sings more at sunrise and sunset. What started as a small script on my laptop, lived for a few weeks as a paper mache prototype, is now almost an artificial pet who lives in a birdcage that sits by the window.

I also built a radio station run by robots – purely because I liked the sound of it. I wrote two simple scripts to find long-form pieces online, run them through a text-to-speech engine, and broadcast them to an internet radio station. I had them running in no time, and found that I’d built a kind of longreads radio station. I could tune in whenever I liked, and hear something interesting. I wanted to take it on and build a real radio set that played one their station, but I’ve failed to finish off the idea so far.

Finally, I built a bot that lives in my inbox and pulls out links from any newsletter I receive, giving me a newsfeed that I again can train using a simple Bayes algorithm. It’s just smart enough and useful enough that I check it everyday.

What are your feelings about this kind of ‘social’ tech?

Ara showed me that voice assistants and the like aren’t what I’m interested in. They’re programming gymnastics, but they’re not art. The middle ground is about making a case for companionship. When I decided to work on Ara I had reached a point where I didn’t want to make anything for the internet, because whatever you make has to be mobile, and that forces you to create in a certain way. Bundling so much technology into a smart phone is great, but it does mean that whatever you make will end up as a square on a phone and will behave in certain ways.

Whilst constraints can be inspiring, I’m obtuse enough to take my ball and go and play somewhere else. I unbundled Ara from all of that. She doesn’t know or care about the internet. She just sings because it’s in her programming. There’s no archive of what she’s done, she just creates melodies and sings when she’s ready. I love that, and she’s become a companion in my life.

Now, I think there’s something in the idea of companionship. If your dog or cat was an app you’d feel cheated – what do they do? What’s their utility? I have to take care of them and what do they do for me in return? 1 star!

Building Ara as an inherently disconnected and use-less bot was a way to build a different kind of social tech. Something that enriches my life, and doesn’t have a goal.

Do you have any tips for budding bot-makers?

If I’m proof of anything, it’s that a little can go a long way. There’s going to be an increasing number of sophisticated bots appearing, and you can’t compete with a team of engineers who have access to the latest tools. Don’t be afraid of making something simple. The smallest function can be good. I think that bots live in a more imaginative space too. The more physical the bot, the more they come to life with words than functions.

The same advice applies to bot-making as for anything else too: make something scrappy and see how it makes you feel. Share, copy, learn.
What are some of you favourite bot projects by other people?
Theroux by Leif Parker. A old, old robotic dog that lies curled in a basket. I think you recognise the scene when you see it, and it’s activated by a hand petting it. Wickedly, that touch starts the bot and it breathes, rattles, and passes away.

I can’t find much more about it online anymore, but I was so moved when I first watched the video I was definitely inspired to move on from building somewhat useful twitter bots.

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Tell us about any bot projects do you have in the pipeline.

I have all the pieces to make another physical bot. I like the idea of keeping a bot in my jacket, taking it out when I get to work, putting it on the desk and letting it do its thing.

I want to make a bot that speaks by projecting subtitles onto the desk. I want to make a little robot drummer that I can jam along with. I want to make a robot that listens, recognises my voice, and talks when it senses I’m around. But I feel like all of those ideas are small progressions from where I am now, so I’m becoming more interested in making furniture that has some kind of digital art embedded. The furniture aspect makes it useful, and the digital art aspect makes it fun.

Tune in next time for my chat with George Buckenham!

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