More Than Robots Wants To Change The World, And It’ll Use Disney To Get It Done [SXSW]

This may sound very silly, you may roll your eyes at this, but my wife and I, one of rituals when it’s on, is we watch the TV show “BattleBots.”

Kamen: It came out of FIRST.

It did, really?

Kamen: It started that they asked me to go be part of it and I was so torn. Probably people in the media would’ve said, “Dean, you are an idiot. You should listen, preach what you say,” but when I saw the first couple of pieces of it, the robots were mostly out there to destroy the other robot. . And I kept saying from the day I started FIRST, it’s about a cooperation. I want all the kids to win.

And when I saw what they did, I said to them, “It’s sort of like there’s Olympic-style sports.” There’s Olympic wrestling and there’s WWF. I would support Olympic wrestling. I’m not sure I want to be into this other stuff, and it’s sort of like you’ve taken FIRST and turned it into the WWF of robots. Why don’t you do that? But if you could just let people know they’ll develop the skills to do that by coming to FIRST. Almost all their winning teams, almost without exception the winning teams that they get, grew out of FIRST, so I’m very proud of that, but I just wish there was a little more gracious professionalism.

I will say that when I first started watching “Battlebots,” it was because I want to see robots hit each other. But now my wife and I will talk about motors and engines and engineering. What you’re describing with FIRST does work, even if we came to it from a different show.

Kamen: I might have made a mistake.

I would happily watch FIRST if it was televised or streamed. “More Than Robots” reminded me of a lot of a Netflix show called “Formula One: Drive to Survive.” It’s an incredible documentary series, and I thought if they did this with FIRST, if they followed different teams and turned it into a documentary series that’s high quality, I would watch that.

Sterman: Here’s the thing, we’ve been doing this for the last now two and a half, almost three years, so having the ability, I think, of us starting to do this in person actually, the world kind of opening back up again, now that this comes out I think we’ll be able to see how many people enjoy this, to learn about something that they weren’t aware of, puts that directly, I think then, in conversation. You’re like, “Great, well if this works, why not film more of it?

And there is that direct Disney connection, as Lucafilm and “Star Wars” are directly involved in the competition seen in the movie. I love that clearly you’re luring kids in with something popular and snaring them with science.

Kamen: So I have to tell you, not to take anything away from how brilliant they are, but part of what I loved as soon as I heard it might be being done with Disney was, look, as I said before, the mere fact that it’s Disney, the word Disney puts a smile on people’s face. If you know it’s Disney, it’s about kids, it’s about entertainment. Considering if I said, “There’s going to be a special, it’s a documentary, it’s on such and such,” it would be a monotone voice dribbling in the background about esoteric stuff, typically singing to the choir of the people that made it. Look, I go to the National Academy of Engineering who say, “We got to join forces with FIRST.” And these are the most prestigious, accomplished people in the world of technology in the United States. The great debate was why should we be involved with FIRST? Because if the technical community of the country is willing to stand up and share about technology, who is?

Then stop complaining that we have no pipeline, we don’t have enough kids trying to study math and science, particularly underserved communities don’t even think it’s a possibility. And whose fault is that? It’s not the fault of the NBA or the NFL or Hollywood. They are good at what they do. They promote what they want to promote. You’re not even a voice. You’re not even a whisper. Get on with it. And we did get them to support us and they are now partnering with us and I think they are being slowly pulled into a reality that if the technology community of this country isn’t willing to start promoting how exciting the world of technology is, we will continue to get what we deserve.

In America, everybody’s free. Kids are free. We have a bill of rights, we don’t have a bill of responsibilities, so kids have the right to grow up as dumb as a rock and most of them are taking advantage of that. And I sit there and say, “You can’t blame the kids.” If all the media they see is telling them, “Here’s the role models, here’s the superstars, here’s the heroes,” why would they want to go spend 10 years of their life studying arithmetic and geometry and algebra and calculus and trigonometry? It’s hard. And what’s the point? There is a point. Who tells them the point?

Sterman: I do think it’s interesting though, in an opportunity that we had obviously one week in the film, is that there’s a micro and a macro version and getting, I think, to understand who some of these kids are, who some of these mentors are , so you understand that there are people who come from entirely different walks of life, and it is also a global community, so it’s not just about this competition that’s made for American kids. So being able, I think, for kids to see themselves reflected in the film will hopefully give kids who either weren’t aware of this or were but maybe have hesitation of an understanding to find a way into it themselves will realize there is a community and it’s not strictly just about playing a position on an organized sports team. There’s a place for everyone.

How was the selection process? For lack of a better word, how’d you select these kids, these teams, to highlight?

Sterman: One of the main things that we wanted to do up front was obviously celebrate the idea that it is a global competition. It is not just based entirely in the United States, so we made the conscious effort of, basically, we chose two teams in Los Angeles because that’s obviously where we’re based, so that became one angle, but then also we chose a team in Japan and chose a team in Mexico with the help of FIRST. Obviously they have the wealth of knowledge of obviously what the makeup of these teams are, also who these mentors are, the people who started these teams, so we had conversations and worked our way down.

Being able to meet some of the teams and then meet some of the kids in LA, then taking that knowledge and we did basically pre-interviews beforehand, so we met the team, the people who were the mentors of the team in Mexico and in Japan. They have an amazing ability of understanding obviously the kids who were on that team, so they shared that with us. By the time we got to any of those locations, we were kind of familiar with who they were, and then in spending a little bit of time narrowed and then, with a few of them, went home with them and got an understanding of what their home life is like as well.

The juxtaposition is sometimes shocking. You see kids working in giant labs, and some kids have to work in their school’s hallways.

Kamen: He gave you the polite version of how do they pick teams, I’ll tell you a fun story about a media person, but also I will happily tell you, I’m glad they picked because I know all the teams and he could make four teams very happy. I don’t want to explain to the other 80,000, not you, I’ll just say wasn’t my choice. I’m a coward. But probably 15 years ago, we’re at Disney, we’re still doing our championship at Disney, and they built us a whole arena every year and we get bigger and bigger, and they built us down at Epcot the arena. And ABC News is down there, a bunch of news in there following kids around, and one of the anchors or something comes back to me after going through the pits and he’s all excited. There’s lots of stuff going on, we’re trying to talk him, “Put it on the news, get these stories up,” and he looks at me and he’s deadly earnest.

He says, “Dean, this is really fantastic because everything says.” He said, “But I just met the most extraordinary kid. He was in a gang in Los Angeles. He was a gang kid and he was going the wrong way. He’s in one of these alternative schools, and because he was given the opportunity. to be on a FIRST team, he joined that team and now he’s the captain of that team and he’s going off to college. Dean, this is the most extraordinary kid I’ve ever seen. ” And I looked right at him, as you can tell I’m genetically incapable of not being sarcastic and obnoxious, I’m a New Yorker, I look at this guy, I said, “Wow, you mean in only a half an hour , you were able to go out into that enormous set of kids, 20,000 kids in those pits, and you were able to find the one kid that’s exactly like all the others? That’s amazing. “

And he looks at me. I said, “Go talk to another 50 kids and what you’re going to find is they all have an incredible story because they’ve all realized they can do this.” They realize they can be part of our team. You said this kid was in a gang. Everybody’s in a gang. Some gangs are bad gangs. NASA is a gang, it’s a gang of people that are putting people … These people have now joined our gang, but it’s a gang that they should be proud of, their parents should be proud of. Our industry leaders are desperate for more of these kids, our country needs them, so we just created an alternative gang. That’s what we are.

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