Trouble with wild lockdown locks? Engineer and part-time YouTuber Shane Wighton figured it would be fun to use his free time, rather casually really, to make a robot hairdresser to tame the mane at home—something many of us wish he had attempted before lockdown and our hair crisis.
Wighton is known for his YouTube channel Stuff Made Here, where he posts videos on the process of his life hack inventions, including his robotic barber—the ultimate hairdresser, programmed exactly to his specifications. We’ve all faced the vanity repercussions of lockdown, and most of us will never take hair salons for granted again, having been shut for months. Wighton has his own reasoning behind his motivation, he “would rather not have someone cut my hair who’s also touching 100 other people’s heads all day long.”
Wighton realised it was time to take matters into his own hands, so he built the robot. Why not, if you’re a practiced engineer? The robot uses scissors, rather than clippers, which adds to the complexity of the device. Would you really trust a robot to swing scissors that close to your ears, eyes and face? He did. His wife on the other hand did not.
So how does it work? The robot sections out chunks of hair, much like a hairdresser would finger out sections to trim in real life using a comb and hands. But robots aren’t exactly known for their intuition skills, which is why Wighton had to first implement the data for the specific haircut he wanted to go for to exact digits to get the wanted results. With some trial and error, Wighton decided in the end that a little hoover would work better than a robotic arm to do the combing—which took care of the cleaning up too. Win win.
The big issue the engineer faced was getting the robot to know where his head was and where to cut. He added an Intel RealSense Depth Camera, where he used facial recognition to find where his head was, and then combined that with the depth data to figure out where his head was within a 3D space. Once this problem was solved, Wighton had to think about how exactly he would tell a robot what haircut he wants.
Wighton programmed a 3D model of a head, and ‘painted’ onto the model what haircut he wanted using a gradient. In his case, the lighter grey was longer, and darker grey was shorter. The robot loaded the 3D model and figured out how many locations, and at what length to cut the sections at, as well as calculating how many sections this will take to complete the whole look.
In the live video of the robot’s first try, Wighton looked mortified. He admitted he was terrified of it ruining his hair. The whole haircut took the robot an hour to complete, only because he found a bug in his code mid-process, which told the robot to cut six times as many locations than necessary on his head. In theory, it should have taken the robot just 15 minutes to cut Wighton’s hair.
With a few minor defects that Wighton plans on perfecting in the future, the engineer didn’t quite end up with the hair style he put in to the system, getting instead a ‘robotically perfect mullet’. The verdict? Not too bad, he’s got a month to grow a new set of locks while he tweaks the robot and tries again. If he perfects the device, who knows what the future of hairdressing will look like?
The last couple of years have seen both rampant fear and hysteric excitement over the implementation of autonomous and intelligent systems (A/IS) within our everyday lives. As some of Silicon Valley’s resourceful entrepreneurs are aptly profiting over the AI epidemic, a group of scientists, academics, and professors have joined forces under the name of The Council on Extended Intelligence (CXI) to find a different, more beneficial, approach towards autonomous and intelligent technologies. Their goal: to build the basis for an A/IS that is not exclusively profit-driven and, most importantly, refuses to accept the machine vs human competition narrative that seems to be ruling.
According to Joichi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, team member of The Council on Extended Intelligence, the only ones who are currently benefiting from Artificial Intelligence technologies are those who master them; those who live within what he calls the ‘singularity bubble’, while the rest of us are left outside the conversation as passive users of overwhelmingly powerful technologies.
The central problem with technological singularity—and the main reason why The Council on Extended Intelligence is working towards changing this narrative—is that it implies a future where a super-intelligent technology supersedes human reason and becomes a sovereign and threatening entity. In light of this movement, media coverage around AI and super algorithms has helped inflate the possible consequences of such an exponential growth of machine intelligence—basically, AI taking over our jobs and bots outsmarting humans to eventually take control over the world—in ways that have only been predicted in sci-fi movies.
At the same time, the use of Artificial Intelligence for surveillance purposes and data exploitations have only increased the mistrust towards this technology and the belief that AI is indeed engineered to work against us. “Widespread surveillance, combined with social-engineering techniques, has eroded trust and can ultimately lead to authoritarianism and the proliferation of systems that reinforce systemic biases rather than correct them. The Council is actively working against this paradigm—in which people have no agency over their identity and their data—as being fundamentally at odds with an open and free society.” Reads a text on The Council on Extended Intelligence’s website. From participatory design to the Digital Identity project, which is set to create a Data Policy template for governments and organisations to provide individuals and society the tools to reclaim their digital identity, the CXI is paving the way for a future where people do not see intelligent machines as opposites but as an extension of our own assets.
To counter the dystopian machine-driven future scenario prophesied by the singularity theory, The CXI is opening a debate to promote the collaboration between human and technology by employing participatory design structures to build intelligent and autonomous machines. In other words, the CXI is made up of tech-experts and professionals who believe that technology should be developed differently than how it has been by governments and private corporations so far.
“Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines—not Artificial Intelligence but Extended Intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems.” Explains Ito in Resisting Reduction: A Manifesto, which is a call for action and one of the fundamental texts behind the CXI.
The Council on Extended Intelligence is just starting to promote its philosophical and technological agenda, but as our society delves deeper into the algorithmic age, feeling overwhelmed by the speed in which technology seems to be taking control over every aspect of our lives, we start to understand why it is crucial to rethink its model now that we see the flaws. And to do so, shifting the narrative behind it really is the first step to regaining agency over our future. And that is precisely what Ito and his fellow colleagues are trying to do.