Meet The Man Who's Building Robots For Political Resistance

Illustration for article titled Meet The Man Whos Building Robots For Political Resistance

Right now, we're developing a lot of devices whose sole purpose is to spy or control us. To counter this, an MIT visionary decided to take matters into his own hands by inventing equal and opposite robots to empower people who are being menaced or disempowered by military robotics.

Top image: Automata (2014)

The remarkable story of Chris Csikszentmihalyi was recently chronicled by tech journalist Luke Yoquinto in an article that now appears at the longform journalism startup The Big Roundtable.


In it, Yoquinto describes how Csikszentmihalyi became a professor at the MIT Media Lab back in 2001, and how last decade, as he observed drones take over warfare and military interests dominate robotics research, he decided to fight back. But rather than take the Luddite route, he used technology to his advantage; he started to build robots to empower the powerless.

To that end, he developed a fabric-wing UAV built of household products (the idea was that it would be devoid of military DNA), a four-wheeled telepresence robot designed to observe wars being fought, and a robotic kayak designed to protest at Guantanamo.

And that was just the start. He and his students would go on to create media tools as a response to civilian intelligence oversight, including TXTmob, a protest-facilitating texting tool that directly influenced Twitter, and GIA, an early crowd-sourced web tool designed to keep tabs on the connections and affiliations of government officials.

You can read the entire piece here, but Yoquinto has allowed us to reprint a sizeable portion of the article:

The Robots of Resistance

Why does new technology always seem to serve the rich and powerful? Meet the MIT visionary who kept asking that question, as long as he could get away with it.

August 2005: Willcox Playa, Arizona. The air was hot and full of wind, the ground hard and full of cracks, and an aircraft of sorts was flying directly at Josh Levinger's chest.

It was, put mildly, irregular in composition. Its fuselage was a blue, five-gallon water cooler bottle. Its two three-liter ballast tanks once contained soda, and its aluminum propeller guard came from a bicycle. The engine originally belonged to a weed-whacker and the fabric wing overhead was designed for kite surfing. The machine's name was Freedom Flies, and almost every part of it was borrowed or homemade.

Of the four-man team testing the airworthiness of Freedom Flies, Josh Levinger, an MIT undergrad, was one of two principle players. The other, holding a radio controller, was the device's inventor, Chris Csikszentmihályi (pronounced CHEEK sent me HIGH), then an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab.

As a concession to the heat, Chris had traded his usual collared shirt—three or four buttons always undone—for a cotton tee. Otherwise, he looked like he always did at the Lab: three-day stubble, close-cropped hair, the high forehead of a man pushing forty. Perhaps the only uncharacteristic thing about him at that moment, as Freedom Flies's propeller tunneled through the desert air, was that his tenor voice was silent. Had Chris been able to speak, or even form a coherent thought, he might reasonably have wondered whether he'd made a horrible mistake. Academia tends to frown upon injuring students.

Chris and Josh, together with two other friends—a mechanical engineer and a computer scientist—had been living out on Willcox Playa for days, launching the aircraft, crashing, repairing, launching, and crashing again. The scene, Chris later recalled, was "definitely four guys out on the desert." Their rented RV and a tent outside provided the only shade for miles. As often as they could, the gang grilled nopales—green prickly pear cactus leaves.

It was a basic way to live, and they were answering a basic human impulse: to send something into the sky that doesn't belong there. In fact, what was immediately remarkable about Freedom Flies's lumpy, un-aerodynamic bulk was the degree to which it did not resemble anything in nature that soars—bird, bat, or butterfly. Still, the irregularity of the design belied the seriousness of the endeavor: a response to drone activity along the U.S.-Mexico border. Freedom Flies may have looked like the fever dream of a junkyard attendant, but its field crew was on a mission, one with ramifications beyond the edges of Willcox Playa. The goal was to level an uneven playing field, and they had come to one of the flattest places on Earth to do it.

Now, as Freedom Flies reeled towards Josh, it resembled a pilotless version of a powered paraglider, with its rainbow parafoil unfurled overhead and engine body dangling below. The blur of the propeller formed a tan circle the size of a manhole cover. Josh's pupils constricted.

Takeoff was not supposed to go like this. Rather, the plan was as follows: Chris would pull the weed-whacker ripcord, starting the propeller and blasting backwards a column of air that would simultaneously fill the colorful parafoil tethered ten feet behind and initiate Freedom Flies's slow crawl forward. This motion would grow faster and faster until, rainbow wing now proudly inflated overhead, Freedom Flies's wheels would bounce once, twice, on the hard surface of the desert and then lose contact. At that point, Chris would take control—via a model airplane remote— sending radio signals to a tiny computer on the aircraft that would direct the mechanical motion of a pair of motorized winches, originally intended for a high-end sailboat. The winches would trim the lines leading to the kite overhead, promoting steady flight. Only then could the team take a breath, having made it through the risky part. They could switch Freedom Flies over to a GPS-guided autopilot mode and throw some fresh nopales on the grill. And the aircraft would hang in the Southwestern sky like an ugly Christmas ornament, casting fearful shadows or gleaming with hope, depending on the observer.

It didn't work out that way, however. The wind and the airflow from the prop wash together weren't enough to fill the fabric wing, so, like any kite on a windless day, Freedom Flies needed someone to pull it forward with a rope. Josh, the youngest, was volunteered. Chris said go. Josh ran. And the thing took off.

But a split-second later, Josh turned and saw it bearing down on him, propeller whirring like a kamikaze Cuisinart. He hit the deck and Freedom Flies passed just overhead. It struck the ground a few yards past his feet, skipped once, and lay still. He took a moment to treasure his continued existence. Then, he wondered what broke. Every crash entailed repairs, which meant trips to the nearest town and jury-rigging new parts out of old junk, which cost time. Six hours was typical.

Willcox Playa in August was not such a bad place to kill time, though, as long as you had friends, shade, and enough nopales. In spare moments during the day, Josh took out Freedom Flies's kite and let the wind drag him around. At night, he carried onto the black desert their infrared camera, borrowed from MIT, and watched the others glow in the dark. One evening one of Chris's friends tested the top speed of his Jetta, kicking up a clean line of dust across the playa. The setting belonged in a car commercial: fifty square miles of perfectly flat, dry lakebed, interrupted only by mirages of water and, in the blue distance, the Little Dragoon mountain range.

That surfeit of flat space was one reason why Chris had chosen the Arizona playa for Freedom Flies's proving ground. The other reason was milling about noisily a few hours south: a border militia meeting, of which Chris wanted a closer view—an aerial view, to be precise.

Six months before, Chris had conceived of Freedom Flies as a reaction to what he considered to be a disturbing technological trend at the U.S.-Mexico border. One private militia group, the American Border Patrol, had built a twenty-pound, wooden drone to watch for undocumented immigrants. They had been flying the Border Hawk, as they named it, consistently since 2004. Now, the government was following their example. The U.S. Border Patrol had been testing unmanned aircraft for use along the Mexico line since 2003, and as of summer 2005, it was preparing to launch its first Predator. The government's goal was to enforce the law. Chris's concern was that they would enforce it selectively—focusing on the immigrants trying to reach the U.S. but not on the "border extremists" within the U.S. trying to stop them.

Chris liked to build robots, and he loved to help an underdog. So, in contrast to the Border Patrol, he made Freedom Flies according to a countervailing set of priorities: to help migrants survive the desert and to monitor their encounters with militias.

Such an aircraft would need to stay aloft for a long time, which meant a gas engine. It would also have to carry a significant payload: a heavy infrared camera or drinking water. And it needed to be flashy, because sometimes a machine is more than a machine. Depending on the model and whom you ask, drone aircraft can represent progress or menace; security on the wing or death from above. Chris wanted his drone to appear as an outstretched hand to migrants, and an outstretched middle finger to those who would stand in their way.

Freedom Flies's flagrant rainbow-wing design fulfilled all of these requirements and more. Chris calculated that Freedom Flies could last six hours in the air and carry fifteen extra pounds of payload. It would only cost a few thousand dollars to build. That was important: Chris wanted anyone to be able to build his or her own Freedom Flies, and he made the plans and code available for free.

In addition, the design of Freedom Flies satisfied a tougher set of constraints. Historically, military research had directed the development of drone aircraft, but Chris wanted a fresh technological start: a drone devoid of military DNA. That meant no parts designed for the Pentagon or its contractors. Hence all the household items.

Freedom Flies's ugly, fabric-wing, peace-loving, open-source design was, from Chris's perspective, the full package. It simultaneously identified a problem and provided an example of a solution—a leitmotif already discernible in his work at MIT that would echo louder and louder in the late 2000s.

But there was one thing it wasn't guaranteed to do. Fly.

After a series of test flights in Massachusetts, the most notable of which ended in power lines above the MIT football stadium, Chris and Josh broke Freedom Flies down into its parts, packed as many power tools as they could, and flew to Los Angeles. After an eight-hour drive in the RV, they were in the desert, launching, crashing, repairing, repeating.

Now, having fixed Freedom Flies once again after its attempt on Josh's life, the team readied for another trial. The sun was setting; the camera was rolling. Chris ripped the cord, the engine caught, and Josh ran for it. Freedom Flies finally blasted off, leaving the ground far behind. Whoops were audible.

Then the engine swung slightly to starboard. It returned left, then, sickeningly, rose much higher to the right. Chris, furiously toggling the radio controller, tried to check the motion, but not only was the pendulum swinging back left but rounding a corner as well, moving forward and adding another dimension into the equation. Facing skyward, Freedom Flies stalled for a moment, motionless, lost in the setting sun. Then, the inevitable happened: The weight swung backward and the propeller was no longer facing the horizon, but directly down. Someone let out an "Oh my God." When Freedom Flies hit, parts sprayed in all directions. The crunch was almost cartoonish, like a piano landing on a sidewalk.

Later that night, Chris cracked open a bottle of mezcal and began pouring shots, to be consumed with whole garlic cloves as a chaser. Josh was surprised to find him in such a celebratory mood. Freedom Flies was broken, perhaps for good. They had never even had the chance to use the GPS-guided autopilot system that Josh had programmed. And Freedom Flies would never cast its shadow over the militia at the border, which was half the reason for coming to Arizona. Wasn't it?

Chris knew better, because he understood the true purpose of Freedom Flies. It had stayed aloft for fourteen seconds, long enough to make a video of its brief flight, and that, if not the best-case scenario, was good enough. Although Freedom Flies looked and felt like an MIT engineering project, it was primarily a work of art, existing less to fly than to be seen flying, which the video would make possible. As Chris poured, Freedom-Flies-the-machine lay in pieces on a dead lakebed. Freedom-Flies-the-idea, meanwhile, was about to take off, and that fit in just fine with Chris's plan.

Despite holding a professorship at perhaps the world's premier engineering institute, Chris was no engineer, strictly speaking. His inventions were more about ideas and political dissent than pushing the limits of technical progress, prioritizing airtime in the media over, say, time spent flying through the air. And so there was some question about how long he, too, could stay aloft.



This story originally appeared at The Big Roundtable. Writers at The Big Roundtable depend on your generosity. All donations, minus a 10 percent commission to The Big Roundtable and PayPal's nominal fee, go to the author. Please donate.


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Robot uprising, now featuring: Humans and robots working together.

Well, i for one welcome our new synthetic brethren and would like to remind that Viva La Robolución! ^_^