Building and Programing Intelligent Machines

To most people (myself included), “programming” connotes hacking, creating apps and using impenetrable tech lingo. Lick-Wilmerding’s Building and Programming Intelligent Machines class wants to turn that idea upside-down, and it’s found a perfect match in Natalie Freed. Natalie Freed has a unique vision of electronics that’s borne directly from her personal experience and wildly appropriate for the new class’s outlook.

Freed told the Paper Tiger that she’s very happy with the class’ name, “Building and Programming Intelligent Machines,” even though it wasn’t her idea. “I think ‘robotics’ gives you a particular idea. You know, you think of Battlebots or sort of military robots, but robotics is this huge deal. There’s so many interesting things you can do with it. I want to show them this wider range of possible.”

What’s “possible” in electronics for Natalie Freed is, suffice to say, diverse. Taking a look at her portfolio is like entering a dream sequence of LEDs and felt. She has books that wirelessly communicate with one another, circuitry laid in felt and a playspace where a trundling robot ducks into a tunnel only to reappear projected on the walls. In short, a lot more than apps.

The wireless “telescrapbooks” use a system of stickers and corresponding sockets. One fits a sensor and the other houses an actuator, like a tiny sound chip or LED light. Readers can create their own scenarios around the sensors and actuators, or even have a pair of books communicate. An owner of one scrapbook in Minneapolis could tell its reader when a paired scrapbook in Paris is open to a certain page with a little waving arm or light on in a picture of a house.

Freed’s first foray programming was during her freshman year of high school, in her native Berkeley’s Berkeley High School. It was not a very good introduction to the field for her. The kids in it all had, she said, “this really strong need to show that they knew something.” This wound up involving them walking up to her computer screen and telling her she was doing things wrong.

But the main concern for her was that the subject matter wasn’t right. They built things like databases of cars and video games, things she had no interest in at all. She remarked that, at the time, she enjoyed using art programs like KidPix, and if they had built things like that she would probably have gotten hooked a lot sooner. She didn’t retry computer science until college, despite despite continued encouragement from her father, himself a computer scientist.

“Computer games were not interesting to me—I just didn’t see how it would be something that I would use. That was part of why I was really hoping to show my students the wider range of what you can possibly come up with, of things they can build. Even if they’re things that I’m not interested in, I just want to show them that there’s lots of options.”

She also remarked that she “was never a math person,” which was part of what kept her away from programming. “They say, ‘oh, if you like math, then this is for you.’ And I didn’t think I liked math.” But, ironically, that aversion to math would wind up pushing her back to the computer in her freshman year of college. She took a computer science course because it seemed like the easiest way to fulfill her math requirement. Before then, she had tried degrees in industrial design and psychology, both of which would crop up in her later work.

“But those majors… they just didn’t fit. That one computer science class was like, ‘I can do this. This is fun. This is really the kind of challenge I want right now.’ And so I took more classes and some of them were harder than others, like the math classes I was dreading and didn’t want to take, but some of them were wonderful. I was fascinated enough that I stuck with it.”

These days, Freed works part-time at Lick-Wilmerding and part-time at the Exploratorium’s New Media Studio, designing the electronics to facilitate their exhibits. Freed explained to us that “‘New Media’ is computers and screens and things. When the Exploratorium started, there was none of that there. So it’s this group that, in some ways at times is a little controversial at the museum… not really explicitly so, but that there’s some people who worry about, ‘Well, we don’t want all our exhibits to turn into things with screens.’ And I’m definitely on the same page with that, because part of the appeal of the museum is that you can touch things.” Fitting with the Exploratorium’s sensory and human theme, the New Media team always tries to integrate the digital aspect of the exhibit with the tangible, which leads them to all sorts of inventive and novel approaches.

Freed hopes to replicate that same mentality at Lick, where the technical art aspect of the class is reflected in the “building” part of its name. That aspect is also part of why Natalie Freed is such a perfect fit for the class. Her specialty is in unorthodox uses of electronics and robotics; one of her goals is to create a new breed of device helps to dissolve the barrier between the digital and physical worlds. Her various projects, in all their whimsy, demonstrate this point beautifully. It’s also fitting that the class’s final project will be open-ended to let the students design and create something that embodies how electronics can fit into their lives.

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