Sunday, February 24, 2008

License to Tinker

I have been reading much more about hardware these days, partly due to my work, and partly because it took my fancy. Being a software person for a long time, I wasn't too far away from hardware. I had never taken very much interest in it though, beyond the occassional soldering of readymade kits. Recently I came across a microcontroller board called the Arduino which has interested me like never before.

The basic idea is to make a cheap microcontroller board that can be programmed via USB on the big three platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux. The board has plenty of digital and analog IO pins and already there is a great interest in it from people from various backgrounds. For a software person, this is a great opportunity to play with hardware, and many hardware people are looking at it as a nice introduction to software. For a person who knows electronics, this is a great introduction to both. The board design is open, and clones already exist. Lady Ada has made a wonderful breadboard version called the Boarduino, and a free arduino clone called the Freeduino is out already. Got to love the community's funny naming schemes. Using this microcontroller, you can hook up your home's appliances, your cameras, lights, stereos, and even train your household pets. The potential is very great, and I am certain that this will lead to a blossoming of creativity in the hardware department. Much of ideas behind software hacking that lead to Linux (and other free software) are being applied here: Commodity parts, Free exchange of information, lack of patents or other ways of stifling creativity, and interest from people who are doing it Just For Fun.

It is hard for me to figure why I am suddenly interested in it. There is no aspect of my work or my social life that will benefit from this, but it just seems like a fun thing to play with. Maybe it is Nicholas Zambetti's invention where you control an alarm clock using a teddy bear. Maybe I'll finally use it to remotely reboot hung machines. It is hard to tell whether it will ever have real utility, but I think it has great amusement value.

This idea of tinkering has recently been popularized by Nicholas Nassim Taleb in his wonderful book, "The Black Swan". He argues that in many cases, wonderful inventions were never the product of dedicated work, but rather a fortunate product of random tinkering. His article (thanks, Dad!) forms a nice summary of The Black Swan and is highly recommended if you aren't inclined to pick up the book.

Of course, all of this is very relevant to India. We are riding the technology wave, and many of our creative tinkerers will be responsible for the next wave of economic activity. I know of fresh college graduates starting companies, and it is such efforts that will lead to the next Big thing, whatever that may be. It is hard to tell what ideas will be popular, but the tinkering spirit is what will lead us to discover new ideas. Instead of chaining children to desks, we should set their minds free, and allow them to experiment, learn by trying, even if it means handing them a powersaw at an early age.

At this point I usually take a pointed jab at us Indians, stuck in the backwaters, and how far we are from Arduino hacking. But this time there is no disapointment! The wonderful TechSouls group already has an Arduino clone that you can buy in India! Go ahead, pick it up, and tinker away.