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Robotic tech in Massachusetts the whir heard round the world

A new breed of tech entrepreneurs is not just changing the way technology works — they are changing our politics, economics and the entire shape of things to come.

Boston, Cambridge, Gloucester, Springfield, Worcester — across Massachusetts, the English place names scatter like snow, reeling off along rail lines. Homesick pilgrims naming a landscape, landing, then starving, helped by the locals, then killing them and spreading westwards.

Here, in 1636, Dr John Harvard bequeathed his library to found a college for the training of parsons. An ocean away from crown and Canterbury, the nascent university became a centre of free thought, a few miles outside of the booming, unruly city of Boston. In an era when Oxford and Cambridge had become decadent Latin crammers, the students of Harvard were reading Locke, Berkeley, Bolingbroke, Milton and countless other writers, emergent from the English revolution. Two generations of such students were sufficient to turn the colony into a liberal outpost, cities and towns of people who believed themselves to be possessed of rights by virtue of their being Englishmen and women — and since they were so far from anywhere, by virtue of being simply human.

When, from the 1740s onwards, the increasingly imperial British crown began to try and claw back power and money from the New World, to reverse the rights that people now thought were theirs, various Harvard college graduates began to talk about returning things to the way they had been — staging a revolution, as it were. When, by the 1760s, a series of new taxes had been levied to pay for Britain’s wars, a bunch of Harvard graduates began to agitate among the disgruntled sailors, tradesmen, laundresses and others of the city. The rest is history. Or History.

The most effective of these was Sam Adams, who linked first Massachusetts and then the 13 colonies together in a common project of independence. He linked together Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin, the printer-turned-author, who invented the fire brigade and discovered the electrical nature of lightning, and Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and invented the swivel chair, the lazy susan and vanilla ice-cream, among other things. As the revolution progressed, everything became radicalised. In Massachusetts women got the vote, and kept it till the 1790s. Slavery was abhorred. Local doctors developed inoculation techniques. Long before the first shot was fired at Lexington, the revolution had begun — and was mostly won.

Massachusetts was a world in flux. Not only was society changing, the idea of authority and legitimacy, but so too were the people themselves. This was the greatest part of the revolution, that people would think of themselves differently, would have a higher assessment of their capacities than was possible in the Old World. Politics and science, craft and art — the border wasn’t set. That was what made things possible. That is what you think about — or I do, anyway — when you take the train out of Boston.

Worcester, about 40 miles west of Boston, doesn’t look like the centre of a revolution. It’s a college town — by some accounts the collegiest town in the US — but it doesn’t show it. Like most mid-size towns/cities in the US, it is a memory of itself, the main street tired cafes, old haberdashers, vacant shopfronts — and over it all, the vast medical centre/hospital complex, fattened by the health insurance megacomplex, made out of unnecessary testing and overcharged services. Bloated, dysfunctional post-Reagan US capitalism at its worst/best. The town was the site of the Massachusetts Spy, the newspaper of the early revolution. The Declaration of Independence had its first public reading here. In the 1800s, immigrants from across Europe, from Norway to Greece, flocked in. They invented, inter alia, the monkey wrench, tenpin bowling, the Valentine’s Day card and the smiley face logo. When the city declined in the 1960s, it was cut in two by an expressway and one of the first “galleria”-style mega-malls in the country, now in the process of demolition. Now Worcester is making robots.

This is Technocopia. I started Neuron out of college, supplying robot controllers to business.”

To get to Neuron Robotics, you go out of town a little to an old industrial area — long red brick sheds that once held mills and machines and are now partitioned off for small businesses. Neuron’s one of those, but it has no site to speak of — “Kevin’s in his office,” says a guy of the CEO when I ask for him, indicating the gents — and instead works out of a mess of tables and machines in a long, low open area of the warehouse. Neuron manager Nick goes back to answering questions from a bunch of interns, and eventually Kevin Harrington, founder of the company, ambles out, bearded and bestudded, more ’90s feral than teens hipster.

Hi, thanks for coming all this way. You wanna see the delta?” “Well, sure, but I’d like to see the robots.” “Man, the delta is the robot.”

The robot, as it turns out, is far from the electronic butler most people have in mind. It’s not even a Roomba, that pathetic representative of our Jetsons fantasy of a drudgery-free life. Instead it’s a communications system, developed by Harrington, a grad of Worcester tech, that he’s called Bowler. It’s a closed-loop system that, to oversimplify it grievously, allows very simple machines to feed information back to themselves more effectively, thus making what would otherwise be unidirectional machines — stop, start, works, doesn’t — into machines capable of autonomous precise action, at minimal cost. In this case, Neuron has put it in a RepRap 3D printer with a “delta” head — a head strung between three points, rather than being controlled by two Cartesian axes — thus turning it into a printer capable of assessing its own work, and compensating for jams, misfeeds and skewings.

Top-line printers can already do this — thus avoiding wasted hours in flawed printings — but the tech adds thousands to the cost. Neuron’s system narrows the gap between industry printers and desktop 3D models, another push forward in the spread of the technology. Harrington leaps around it with joy, turns to the attached laptop. The delta resumes filigree work on a fractal-like object it has been carving out of empty space.

Man, have we got the Vorbidian process worked out?” he says to Nick. “Not until the Heidelheimer is running,” says Nick. I made all that up, because of course by now I had lost all capacity to follow what was going on. “Do you wanna see the CNC router? Show him the Saturn rocket,” says someone else. “I’d kind of like to talk about the whole thing,” I say. We segue to two ratty kitty-corner couches next to a fridge and coffee machine, like any student newspaper or activist hangout the world over. Kevin lounges, Nick buzzes in and out for the next half hour. A couple of interns hang around, hoovering up every word.

For a start, this isn’t Neuron Robotics here,” says Kevin. “This is Technocopia. I started Neuron out of college, supplying robot controllers to business.”Harrington was a small-town kid, wrong side of the tracks, dad lit out when he was two. His mother struggled. Struggled how? “My mom … did what she did,” he says, a statement that doesn’t invite pursuit, “then she got qualified, became an English teacher.” A teacher in junior high opened the world of machines to Harrington, and he didn’t look back, diving into the world of tech. Hacking obsessions developed across the noughties, as the global anti-capitalist movement rose and waned. Harrington was part of the bent side of the engineering school, the non-white shirt or start-up crowd, a social conscience but without much form or grounding. The robotics firm — in this more limited but also more general sense, as robotics is everything that drives machines autonomously — took off, its creation in part a response to the 2008 crash, which had pulled the rug from under a whole generation of students who had been promised jobs in America’s unending boom.

Harrington’s parts were clever and innovative, the orders came, the way of the world still niggled. Then the Japan tsunami hit, the one that wiped out the Fukushima power plant. Neuron’s cost for a single specific part went through the roof, the profit model went through the floor, as panic played out on the international news. And for Harrington it all came together. “I was like, how can this happen, man, not to me, I mean, but how does the whole economy work? Not only like, how can you have a nuclear reactor get wiped out  by a wave, but like …” He shakes his head. “I asked a professor of economics up at Worcester [Tech] and he explained the credit creation process and I said, ‘that can’t be how it works! That can’t be. The bank has $10 and lends a hundred! That can’t be!’ He just smiled at me and said, ‘That’s how it is’. So I started to read.” Harrington followed his nose, paged through Reddit, started with Chomsky groups, found his way to Proudhon, the 19th-century anarchist, back through Marx, Ricardo and Keynes, Hayek, “and then Zizek”. Zizek? Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian Lacanian communist? That Zizek? “Yeah, and that made sense.” That made sense? “Yeah, and Nick and I had been talking, we’d been talking about this stuff for ages, and we decided to start Technocopia, and roll Neuron into that.”

Technocopia is a makerspace, such as exist all across the US, Europe and the world — a loose collective with a bank of machines from CNC cutters, CAD computers, welding gear, 3D printers, and more —   but it’s one with a deeper sense of purpose. Cross-funded by Neuron’s commercial work, its core membership is consciously focused on finding new ways of running production at a level that would allow a complex society to keep running. Technocopia is a collective but it’s not a ’60s/’70s knit-your-own-yams glory-in-the-austerity type of deal.  As the name suggests, it’s geared towards going further, not stopping short — to working towards abundance of a sustainable sort, total production loops that would satisfy not merely basic needs, but complex ones as well, from autonomous production systems.

Once we get onto this, Harrington is pretty much autonomous himself. Anchored to the couch, he squirms and moves like a delta drive himself, as he veers between economics, philosophy and tech. “What we’re talking about is a total self-producing environment that draws on its own recycled material, prints out its own energy sources and is connected to food production at one end and system production at the other. Central to that is replacing metals — we’ve got to do it without metals, and we’re already working on that here. You need a synthetic with an MP [melting point] that’s — ”‘

Food production,” I say, catching up. “You mean 3D printing food?”

No, I’m talking about permaculture and aquaponics, because once you can print the equipment, the cost approaches zero. Because microeconomics and macroeconomics — ”

Nick interrupts, to ground things a little. “You could imagine a network of spaces, and some would have aquaculture, others would manufacture — ”

Kevin breaks in again. Nick looks amused, perhaps a little chagrined. “When I had dinner with Paul Volcker — ”

Me: “Hang on, you had dinner with Paul Volcker?”

I won this competition on Reddit, ask him one question, and mine was, if the very process of labour replacement by robotics is accelerated by the advance of robotics, how could job creation ever catch up? And that’s what got me dinner with him.”

And what did you ask him at dinner?”

That question.”

What did he say?”

He said, ‘Young man, you’ve put your finger on the problem’. Which wasn’t reassuring — macro and micro, see, I read like an engineer. And I did these online economics courses. And it was clear to me that microeconomics worked off general equilibrium and macroeconomics worked off demand creation, so the systems are never in conjunction at any given time. So how can that work?”

Harrington is not faux-naif, he’s not caricaturing economics as the dismal science — he’s simply analysing it as an engineer would any system lacking a feedback loop and in obvious dysfunction, following the wires to the see where it’s going wrong. The point, of course, is that system dysfunction is obvious to any thinking person, and each will come to an understanding of it out of their specific frameworks and vocabulary. What is elsewhere a niggling feeling is, in the US — a behemoth of dead malls, ghost burbs, rotting ’50s infrastructure and mass activitylessness — so in your face that the only way to avoid noticing it is to join the Tea Party and obscure the problem with hysterical fantasy.

Kevin and Nick come to the problems from a position so far beyond the traditional Right-Left framework that thoughts of applying it remind one of Chesterton’s remarks about Catholic and Protesant approaches to policy on drains. They are not libertarians — exasperated by the recent focus on the “3D printed gun”, a complex fabrication of the one object in the US everyone can acquire with no effort whatsoever — but nor are they Obamaniacs. They’re as scathing of Keynsianism as any neoliberal, but not from a free-market perspective. One member who joins us in the discussion describes himself as a libertarian, but then praises Mondragon, the century-old socialist co-operative community in Basque country in Spain. “You’re actually a communist,” Kevin says to him, amused. That is less a measure of political confusion than it is of the fluxious nature of any political/social framework, if you’re working in this zone — one where you can build a robot 3D printer that will eventually be able to make a copy of itself.

Nor is Technocopia a place run from the proceeds of cake stalls. These guys make drivers that run the neurosurgical robots that may one day be digging into your brain, so it is possible they may have worked out a thing or two that eluded the last generation to try to do this stuff. On the other hand, they talk enthusiastically about systems of total internal democracy that remind me, via a twinge of memory-migraine, of earlier goes at this. Hopefully the feedback loops are not confined to the machines, because I have a feeling they’ll need them. Having used the robotics business as a seeder, they’re now running Technocopia off memberships — including a mass sign-up by Worcester Roots, a group that arose from the Occupy movement. Worcester Roots — they were the “interns” hanging around — are about as naturally technically adept as, say, any given Kardashian, or, well, me. But they have been drawn to the outfit by the understanding — borne in part from the manifest failure of Occupy — that a certain type of transformative politics is at an impasse.

Just as Kevin and Nick — the manager of the whole affair, quiet, who talks of business registration and land-use filings, a little unsure of himself before Kevin’s coruscating brilliance, not yet aware that he will, at some point, have to hold the whole thing together, be the means by which it lives or dies — found themselves drawn to politics. Because neither domain — technology and politics — can now be conducted autonomously, can regard the other as a “black box”. The dilemmas have integrated, as have the possibilities, and so, from either side, must we. And above and beyond anything, it is so damn cool.

Before I leave, we look at the printer again. Its delta head moves every which way, seems to sniff at the object it’s creating, a dime-store omnium. “Is there anything like this anywhere else?” “I don’t know anything like this,” Kevin says, entranced as any of us. History will be amazed at our revolution that started from Harvard college, Sam Adams once remarked, and so it is. A perfect strike, a declaration of independence, a better monkey wrench, this is how the new world is being made, in Worcester, outside of Boston.

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6
  • 1
    JamesH
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    For another interesting take on how Massachussetts & Cambridge etc are being reshaped by the new technical revolution, check out “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan” by John Summers on The Baffler: http://www.thebaffler.com/past/peoples_republic_of_zuckerstan
    He is less hopeful than Guy that the technical and political revolutions will support each other.

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    This single article, is worth a year’s subscription to Crikey.
    Thanks for it putting down in words that are such a blast to read Guy.

  • 3
    Danno of Arabia
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Guy Rundle + 3D Printing + Aquaponics = Bang On The Money!
    This article will be referenced in the future, mark my words.

  • 4
    Kfix
    Posted Wednesday, 12 March 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Not behind a paywall it won’t, Danno. Unless Crikey sets these free after a while? That would be nice. But I’m subscribing for this stuff, and it’s worth it. Great piece Guy.

  • 5
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Keep feeding us more of this, Guy. Not only is it engaging but it’s a timely distraction from the woes here in Oz.

  • 6
    Posted Thursday, 13 March 2014 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Most articles cited by scholars are behind paywalls far more expensive than Crikey. A bigger obstacle to this or indeed any other Crikey article being cited is the difficulty of finding articles published by Crikey. I have tried searching Crikey and using its subject keywords a few times, but basically in my experience an article is lost if I can’t find it in a recent edition.

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