In the summer of 2017, we have hosted several groups of pre-, primary, middle and high school students along with a handful of curious adults at Kovan Research Laboratory in participation of the European Robotics Week (ERW) Open-House events. During the events we have made robot demonstrations and presentations about our work in addition to answering the visitors’ questions on robotics, and I believe we’ve set a lot of minds at ease about the AI taking over humanity. Other than the demos, the real highlight of the event was of course the children with their excitement and never-ending questions bringing even more joy and motivation to our already highly motivated lab.
I have always been fascinated by the children with the way they think without any biases or ideological constraints, and see them as the most beautiful and pure projection of the humans’ cognitive capabilities. I think it is kind of sad that the moment they start getting education, we start filling them up with biases about what they can or cannot do; how they can or cannot think; what they should or should not do and so on. But still the child’s mind persevere through the dictation for quite a long time, and their questions about any topic are, if you ask me, the best of the best: So successful with asking about the most fundamental notion of the topic in their own and unique perspectives, and with making analogies in between concepts in order to better internalize a newly acquired knowledge.
I believe I first realized how wonderful children are thanks to my little sister who is 10 years younger than me (<3 Yagmur). Since this realization, I never miss a chance to have a quality conversation with a child no matter how old, and these ERW lab visits were a goldmine for me in that sense where I did my best to not let down any question or comment about our robots, research, our lives and work in general for three days. There was a point where a group of 4 middle school students came into my cubical and after kindly requesting permission, they started asking questions on comparing C++ and Python. To my shock, I felt out of the context for a moment or two trying to validate if the moment I’m experiencing was actually real. Turns out it was, and they were having fights within the group on which programming language was ‘better.’ I gave them a rather long explanation on how different they actually were, how we would decide to use which, and the ‘better’ really depended on their objectives in the program they were coding and the environment they were working in. I am pretty sure that my mild ‘old people explanation’ did not really put an end to their fight on the topic but at least they heard yet another sentence from a grown-up about comparing apples to oranges. How unsatisfactory could it be?(!) After that, they wanted to see some of my code too. I was delighted to share and discuss what was going on in my code hoping that they would find courage and self-esteem considering that many of the lines in my code would be familiar to them, and we read through a block of C++ code I wrote to control a robot arm in the lab. In the end they actually seemed encouraged with huge grins on their faces now thinking that their coding is almost grad school-level, and they would be able to control a robot arm if they had one.
Before they left, one of them asked me “Why do you keep writing std:: std:: std::…? Why don’t you just write the thing (using namespace std;) atop?” Middle school-ers in 2018… I explained him why, but this time ‘I’ was feeling like the kid in the conversation.
Like many other grad students from time to time (usually closer to deadlines) I ask myself about the usefulness of the thing I have been working so hard on. These Open House demonstrations and Q/As were actually pretty hard work; truly exhausting. But I haven’t experienced one moment of this hesitation during these events knowing that this might as well be the definition of useful: to give the children the time and energy they deserve. Even if just 1 of the students attending to the events were moved by what he/she has seen or heard, that’s worth much more than I don’t know how many days of hard work.