Where Einstein Meets Edison

Penguin Finders are Eating the World!

Penguin Finders are Eating the World!

Jul 18, 2012

Mark Andreessen recently claimed that “software is eating the world.” While that may be true, the teeth used for chewing the world are still hardware based. Electronics will always be at the heart of technology – the quiet directors behind the camera of online networks, healthcare systems, mobile platforms and of course – the cloud, allowing silicon valley’s celebrities to bask in the spotlight.

In fact, there is a recent renaissance of hardware, led by the open hardware movement. It is based on a novel democratic principle, that may at first be counter-intuitive for capitalists, but in fact may be the catalyst that Moore’s Law needs in order to sustain itself even further: make the basic secrets public. Allow the masses to access the base of the scientific pyramid. This is not to say that all trade secrets and patents are void, as part of some anarchistic-communistic utopia, but rather that individuals that were previously artificially kept away from platforms of creation will now be able to create even more intellectual property of their own.

Ayah Bdeir is one of the leaders of the open hardware movement. Her company, littleBits, targets kids, as the biggest pool of potential for carrying the torch of electronics and circuitry. Kids like nice things like chocolate, cartoons and penguins (the latter will come up again), but they usually do not like boring things like electronics, hardware and engineering. From the point of view of an ex-kid, that is understandable, but for most engineers, this brings up a sense of sadness – for the kids as well as for the profession. Bdeir is trying to change that: littleBits is a hardware library of friendly electronic components that simply click together magnetically to form electric circuits of varying levels of complexity. No soldering, no voltmeters, no diagrams, no Fourier transforms.

littleBits launched its first line of products in late 2011 and has been trying to keep up with demand ever since – all with zero investment in official marketing. The company has just completed its first round of funding from venture capital firms True Ventures, Oreilly-AlphaTech, Khosla Ventures, Neoteny Labs and Lerer. But the most interesting aspect is Bdeir’s point-of-view on open hardware and the way it can be implemented to democratize engineering and empower previously intimidated individuals.

When phrasing the unofficial manifesto of open hardware, Bdeir opens with criticism: “There is a growing movement of people who are tired of innovation happening from the top down. They are fed up of large companies guessing from focus groups what consumers want and then giving them to us. Then the products misfunction and we have no idea why.” The community she is referring to is the open-hardware community, and littleBits is only one of the latest brainchildren of its pioneers. The Arduino project allows for rapid open prototyping of electronics for professionals, Makerbot does the same for physical objects, Adafruit makes open source electronic kits for beginners and hobbyists, BugLabs integrates open hardware with open software and the Cloud, Raspberry-Pi is making tiny open computers, Local Motors brings us crowd sourced cars, Shoes of Prey lets users design their own unique pair of shoes and the list is growing in all directions. Bdeir explains the reason for this: “People are starting to realize that we can design better products. We can understand these products better. We do not have to accept these black boxes that have been pushed onto us as if we are idiots.” Bdeir aims to release the intellectual property that is locked between these large companies and use sharing as a method of pushing innovation forward, from the bottom up.

At first, this concept sounds a little too contradictory to American capitalism, but Bdeir is actually not targeting free-for-all end products. Rather, she envisions free-for-all development of products and professional knowledge. littleBits can be seen as a cool toy for the next Christmas season, but in fact it is more of a platform for modular creation. The company is definitely not going to give out its products for free, but it will allow the user to modify it to specific needs, according to a personal stream of consciousness: in this case, the child gets the library of electronic components and easily snaps a few together to actually see something specific created from an initial idea.

Bdeir uses the word ‘democratization’ to describe littleBit’s mission: “Our system is not reserved for experts. It is for people who say they are not inventors and do not understand why they should be inventors.” For her, it is all about re-distributing knowledge and power from the engineering aristocracy to the peasants of non-techiestan. Included in that latter group are kids, because if they do not know what electronics can do and what power electronics can bring to them – they are not going to invest the time to learn it. Bdeir describes this ideology: “For me, this is a way to preach outside the choir and to win kids over within the first ten seconds of attention that they give us. Within a couple of seconds, two pieces click together and light up and there is a moment of happiness and magic and wonder, as they realize what is possible. It is all about bringing down the barriers to entry. I call it ‘ambush learning’.” This is a compelling argument, since we all know that these barriers are sometimes blown out of proportions by what could be called ‘the engineer’s hubris’: deliberately making technology and science seem very difficult, complex and inaccessible to non-experts.

While these are valid points, the age-old question of ‘protectable intellectual property – good or bad?’ comes up. Aren’t patents there to encourage innovators to innovate by granting them that exact same grace period of solitude that Bdeir and the open movement want to abolish? While their democratization efforts will shift the balance of power to the masses, won’t they also be shifting the balance of funding away from professional innovators? Bdeir does not deny this. Instead, she argues that the current balance has gone too far: “Things happened over the past decade, in business and in law that gradually made it more and more valuable to close off your innovation, not share it and for this to become the goal – the basis of your business. And so you sell IP (Intellectual Property) and you license IP and you fight anyone who infringes on your IP – it became a way of business”. In her opinion, this goes against the best practices of innovation. Most engineers, lawyers and business people do not have ill-intentions, she says, but there are a few who made us all believe that the only way to protect ideas is to close them off from others. The open movement says: you protect your ideas by sharing them, because that is how you put your imprint on them. Bdeir summarizes this doctrine: “You take credit for something that you have created and the community respects you for it. That respect is a form of protection that at the same time allows others to build on top of it”. littleBits indeed lives by that doctrine: it takes credit for the creation of the platform, but it allows others to take it from there and co-own the final creation. A truly open platform is supposed to eliminate the incentive for alternative platforms, because the users can manipulate it into anything they need it to be. The soon-to-be-determined results of the Android vs. Apple platform battle can serve as some prediction of the success of this doctrine (though some might argue that Android is not truly open).

Another novel aspect of this approach is that it puts the user at the front – not in a condescending way, but in a respectful way that gives the users, in this case children, credit for knowing what they want. Should they be given that credit? The answer depends on who you ask. Steve Jobs and Henry Ford would say no. Ayah Bdeir says yes. This clash should result in an interesting showdown over the next few years that should be relevant on both the technological and the marketing fronts of future economics.

Bdeir also has a clear definition for the location of littleBits on the user spectrum: “Things like Arduino and Raspberry Pi and Buglabs are wonderful platforms for people who know they are interested in hardware. But I am particularly interested in people who do not yet know that they are interested in hardware.“ In the long run, she sees this potentially evolving into a library of modules for professionals such as industrial designers and architects, but at this hectic point, she prefers to focus on her passion for education. Her voice and face both light up when talking about the hope she has for education: “I think that the education ‘industy’, if we can call it that, is broken in many ways. The younger generations are feeling more alienated from the things they are studying and they have wider gaps between what they study in school and the technology they consume.” Her vision for littleBits is focused on breaking down technology into its simplest parts and enabling children to understand these processes early on. “This way they understand what they purchase, they understand what they live in, they understand the technology that controls their life and they are able to become a problem solver early on.”

This leads directly to one of the more amusing and inspiring parts of the littleBits website, called dreamBits, in which users, including many children, propose future potential applications to be created with this platform: someone suggested a time-machine, or a “moving smile face”, or “a bit that makes smoothed pennies (like in a museum.” Of course there are some more conventional grown-up suggestions, like a tunable DC oscillator or a logical Not bit and there was even a team at NYU that built a sound operated bubble making machine. But Bdeir’s has her personal all time favorite: “A little girl wanted to make a penguin finder. She had this idea of creating it with littleBits – like a metal detector, but for penguins.” Attention – VC’s, this could be huge.

Maybe this idealistic approach is due to Bdeir’s interdisciplinary background in engineering, art and design, which led her, among other places, to the MIT Media Lab. The original art-based concept that led to littleBits, was an attempt to make materials out of electronics. Bdeir explains: “You don’t need training in how to use clay, paper or cardboard to make art. These tools are very instantaneous and provide immediate gratification – you learn how to use them in your own way, but they don’t require programming or reading and I wanted to create that same experience with electronics. Why shouldn’t light be at the same level as cardboard? Why shouldn’t motion be at the same level as wood? Why shouldn’t they all be used democratically?”


Stav Davis