How To Build The Best Bad Robots
Greta Johnsen: Why did you decide to build terrible robots and put videos of them on YouTube?
Simone Giertz: It wasn't as much a decision -- It wasn’t that I was sitting down one day and was like, “OK, I want to make a career out of building stuff that doesn’t work.” It was more that I found s----- robots really appealing, or robots that don’t work that well or make a mess. I thought it was really funny. I was also kind of bad at building stuff, so I was like, “I’m not really good enough to build things that are useful, so maybe I should just take a crack at building things that are useless and have that as a way of learning about electronics and robotics.”
Tricia Bobeda: What is your favorite design or prototype that you’ve built?
Giertz: I mean, I like and hate all of them. They’re kind of like your kids. I made you, I’m proud of you, but you’re also terrible.
I think my favorite is probably the popcorn helmet, because that was the first project I built with Adam Savage. It's a helmet that feeds you popcorn. So it’s like a beer helmet, but instead of two beer cans, it has two popcorn containers and two hands that go to your mouth and feed you popcorn.
With some of the robots, I feel really stupid when I wear them. Like, when I wear the toothbrush helmet, I just feel really stupid. I kind of feel like a dog with one of those veterinary cones around them -- like I’m just a clown. But with the popcorn helmet, I feel like a million bucks. I really feel like I could do anything.
Bobeda: When you’re making these things, you’re genuinely trying to make a machine that completes a task, but like you said, your goal is also to make people laugh. What made you gravitate towards this intersection of science and comedy, two things that we don’t always think of as going hand in hand?
Giertz: Comedy just naturally fits into most stuff I do. I think that's how I stay enthusiastic about something. I'm not a very serious person myself, so that's how I approach tricky things. Like when I’m trying to learn something new and that I feel kind of frightened, I just sprinkle comedy on top of it and it lightens everything up.
If you put comedy in there, there’s a lot of people who have never watched robotics videos who can still watch my videos because you lure them in, you lay out this little honey trap of dick jokes, and then they’re like, “Wow, we actually learned something!”
People have this weird sentiment that it has to be very hard and very serious, and that's when you're actually learning at your best, or that's when you're learning the important stuff. But I think if you're making it fun, people's attention span is so much greater because they’re staying alert because they don’t want to miss the jokes.
Bobeda: What were the early influences that got you tinkering?
Giertz: I was always building stuff as a kid. I really liked Oppfinnar-Jocke -- what is his name in English? I think it’s Gyro Gearloose or something. In the Donald Duck cartoons, there’s an inventor, and I always thought he was really cool.
I just really like picking stuff apart, and I did a lot of woodworking and built a lot of furniture, and then I kind of fell out of it. Most of all, I never saw myself as somebody who liked technical builds. I never saw myself as someone who would like hardware. My brother was always tinkering with computers and building computers from a very early age. And I was just like, “No.”
I think that’s in part because it’s a very male-dominated stereotype. And it took me until I was 23 until I realized there’s nothing that says I can’t be a good programmer. I was always carrying this thought that I couldn’t do it well or that people would catch me being really stupid. I still struggle a lot with that, with imposter syndrome.
Bobeda: Studies have shown that impostor syndrome is happening to young women pretty much as soon as they hit school. There was a study that recently showed that girls as young as 6 have already decided that boys are more likely to be smart than girls. I’m really glad that by age 23, you had broken out of that and decided to start tinkering more.
Giertz: It’s interesting, because you realize you’re just carrying all these weird stereotypes, or these weird fallacies, or things that where you’re like, “Why wouldn’t I be a good programmer?” There’s no proof that I wouldn’t be good at it. I have a logical mind. I like math. I like solving puzzles and problems. It’s funny because it wasn’t until I saw another woman doing it, this really cool hardware hacker in Sweden. I saw her talk -- and that's where, all this bullshit I was carrying around, I started looking at it and wondering, “If she can do it, why can’t I do it?”
Now, I feel pretty safe in my skills, and I have a much easier time gauging what problems I can solve and what problems I need to learn new stuff to solve.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Hear the whole conversation by clicking play above.
NERDS! In this week's episode, Greta and Tricia test Simone on her knowledge of wacky contraptions. Want to play too? Then take our "Two Robots and A Lie" quiz! (And you can hear how Simone did on the quiz at the end of the episode. You don't want to miss it!)