When she was 24-years-old, Simone Giertz was making microcontrollers in San Francisco, where she had moved from Sweden. She was interested in electronics, but instead of school, decided to "get paid to learn." Her job was to find use cases for microcontrollers, including building projects and writing tutorials.
But something, she felt, was missing. "I realized it mattered a lot to me to have ownership over the projects that I built, because I just couldn't muster the same enthusiasm [for those built for others] as for the projects that I did for myself," said Giertz.
So she moved back home to Sweden, and began making things.
Part of her experimenting involved filming YouTube videos featuring her creations—mostly, as she called them, "comedy sketches in Swedish that nobody watched, random stupid stuff."
But in August 2015, Giertz created "The Toothbrush Machine"—a helmet with a robotic toothbrush arm that swung back and forth across the wearer's mouth—and uploaded it to YouTube. The video went viral. "I built this little project and didn't really know what to do with it," she said. "I was like, 'Oh, I'll turn it into a little GIF.' I made a seven-second video and a seven-second GIF of it. I was just doing it for fun, and then the internet is a magical place and weird stuff started happening."
"The rest is history in very small corners of the internet," said Giertz.
Thus, the "queen of shitty robots" was born.
The name, she said, emerged from a subreddit. "I was very active on a subreddit called /r/shittyrobots, so that was where it kind of started for me, where I started posting my projects and started getting a lot of views," Giertz said. The subreddit featured clips of robots that would "mess up or break things, or fall over on their faces and stuff like that," she said. "It's just some sort of robot comedy."
"People just started calling me the queen of /r/shittyrobots, and then at some point the /r just dropped. I was not the one who came up or started it, but I was never really opposed to it," Giertz said. "Now, it's a very unfortunate name, but it's fine. I think being self-declared royalty is such a bizarre thing, I kind of like it."
Giertz's YouTube channel now has more than 421,000 subscribers. She's been featured on The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert. She's the CEO and founder of the company Artificial Stupidity, and is a host on Tested in San Francisco, where she works with Adam Savage, her "biggest childhood idol." Tested, she said, is "where we just play around with technology and see what you can do with it." Giertz is also working on a three-episode web series about space—"the craziest thing you can do"— funded by Google's Making & Science team, set to air in March 2017.
Coming up with videos can be challenging, she said, in large part because "at some point, people's expectations for it and your own expectations for it, and what you're going to make, take over."
"I've been trying not to get carried away, and I cut myself a lot of slack, which means I'm a really bad YouTuber in a lot of ways," Giertz said. "Sometimes I post once a week, and sometimes I won't post for two weeks and people think that I died. I'm just trying to set whatever pace comes naturally and not sweat it too much. As soon as you start putting a schedule on it, or a production line, that kind of kills it. And then what's the point?"
Giertz won't be doing these videos forever. "I think that I will grow tired of it much quicker than other people grow tired of it," she said. And she doesn't want to limit herself. "Maybe I'll really want to start building...I don't know, origami sculptures or whatever. That might make you lose followers, but it's really important to remind yourself that it's OK."
Not everyone understands the point of her robots.
In the subreddit, Giertz said, there's a lot of debate about what she does, "because I create the shittiness, whereas the pure shitty robot is inevitably shitty. It's not supposed to be shitty, but it kind of just does something wrong, which is a really hard thing to do to fabricate," she said. "There's been some debate and I've been kind of in the midst of it, about what's a really pure shitty robot, and how what I'm doing is fake."
But creating functional robots, she said, is "a little bit besides the point."
"People have this logical fallacy where it's completely okay to spend time scrolling through Facebook or watching TV, but as soon as you're building something and creating something, you need to have a purpose for it and a goal for it. I think to me, what I find is that the build process is purpose enough in itself," said Giertz. "I'm all for just removing all the hurdles and all the shackles that people have that stop them from starting to build things, and just getting people going. You never know what's going to come out of it."
In fact, The Toothbrush Machine started as something "fun and goofy," she said. "But what's kept on surprising me during the one-and-a-half years that I've been building shitty robots is that I never intended it to be useful or something that people would actually find use for."
For the toothbrush helmet, "People would say, 'OK, I understand that this is just a gimmick, but this would actually be really useful for people with mobility issues.' I think that that's kind of the beauty of building things for the sake of building things," said Giertz. "I'm just thinking of it for fun, but other people can find different parts of it that can actually help people."
Giertz's work can serve other purposes as well. After the Access Hollywood video surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about "grabbing women by the pussy" and the hashtag #pussygrabsback grew in popularity, Giertz came up with her own response: A "pussy grabs back machine." It's a spring-loaded mousetrap with an attached, artificial hand that will spring out and "grab" the crotch of a nearby offender.
As expected, Giertz received a lot of feedback from the video. "A lot of people were pissed at me, as whenever you voice an opinion," she said. But it felt good to her. "Providing comedy and relief for people when they're going through rough times felt surprisingly nice," she said.
When she is finished with each robot, Giertz usually takes it apart to build a new one. For her, the final creation is not the point. "A lot of people have this intent that the ultimate goal for when you're building stuff is to find something you can launch as a product," said Giertz. "I don't want to sell people more shit they don't need, but I do want to inspire people to build stuff."
"If the stuff I build can kind of spark people and empower people to feel like, 'Oh, if she can do it, I can probably build stuff too,' then I can die happy."
- Why robots still need us: David A. Mindell debunks theory of complete autonomy (TechRepublic)
- The future of robotics: 10 predictions for 2017 and beyond (ZDNet)
- Smart machines are about to run the world: Here's how to prepare (TechRepublic)
- Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars (TechRepublic)
- Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates, and how to save them (TechRepublic)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.