Ian Bernstein, Founder and Head of Product, Misty Robotics meets Avye Couloute, Gen Arm 2Z Ambassador and Founder, Girls Into Coding.
Connecting innovators from across generations is a top priority for our Gen Arm 2Z program. Here, 12-year-old Gen Arm 2Z ambassador Avye Couloute met virtually with Ian Bernstein, Founder and Head of Product at Misty Robotics, to talk robots, childhood projects, and the importance of a continuous learning journey to spark innovation.
Avye Couloute: Hi, I'm Avye and I'm 12, nearly 13, and I'm the founder of Girls Into Coding, which provides girls aged 10-14 with hands-on experience in physical computing, robotics, and coding. You started making robots when you were my age—could you tell me a bit more about your journey that led to that led you to Misty Robotics?
Ian Bernstein: When I was a kid I didn't really know much about robots, but I was always really curious how things worked. I always liked to take apart broken electronics and different things that my parents had. In the fourth grade, my dad ended up finding this guy that taught electronics and they worked out a trade so this guy could teach me about the basics like capacitors and programming.
One day he showed me this flyer for a robotics competition that was going to be happening a couple hours away from where I grew up, in the middle of nowhere in the country. I decided to check it out and I just loved it. As part of the competition, they had a workshop that was based on robotics that were biologically inspired – so lots of little insect robots and solar-powered robots. I ended up using recycled materials—all the stuff that I'd been taking apart—and that’s how I ended up building my first three robots. I was totally hooked after that.
In 2009, I got my first iPhone and I was wondering, why couldn't I use my phone to control robots? And then I met my co-founder, and we realized that not only was nobody controlling robots with smartphones, but nobody was controlling anything physical with smartphones. So, we ended up starting Sphero, our previous company that made robot balls, like Sphero the robot and the first BB-8 from Star Wars. And then we started thinking about more advanced robots, like robots that we see in movies, and that was the inspiration behind Misty.
Avye: That's really cool! You’ve had an amazing career. What inspires you to constantly be involved with such interesting projects?
Ian: When I was pretty young —maybe 14 or 15—I decided to give myself a rule; a principle for myself. And it was that I would never be in a job where I wasn't learning. I've always stuck to that. Sometimes I get into doing something and I realize that I'm not learning anymore. And that's when it's time to make a change.
So that’s led to some of the projects that I've worked on. Even at Sphero, we were working on very cool stuff, but I wanted a bigger challenge. I wanted to be able to learn more and that's one of the reasons we spun out Misty Robotics into a new company a few years ago.
Avye: As a kid, did you have any mentors who helped guide you? How important do you think the role of a mentor is?
Ian: A mentor is really important. I had many. One of the most influential mentors I had was a guy named Mark Tilden who came up with BEAM Robotics, which are biologically inspired robots. He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, about two and a half hours from where I grew up in New Mexico. My dad would take me up there and he would show me all the new robots he was working on, show me cool parts, give me ideas on where I can buy parts, and give me ideas on new types of robots that I might be able to build, or suggestions on ones that I already created. That was just huge for me. I think it's super important to have somebody that can guide you—and to learn from lots of different people.
Avye: How would you describe Misty? Can she be deployed during COVID-19, and what impact do you think she could have in a classroom?
Ian: We designed Misty to be a robotics platform. We spent probably six months at the beginning trying to figure out what the killer thing is that Misty could do. Every week it was something different. We had so many crazy ideas that after a while we realized that people in the world are probably better experts at all these different things. So, we decided to make Misty into a platform so that it was super easy to program.
Now we’re selling Misty to companies that have development teams or individuals that have different ideas for what Misty could do. Then, because of COVID, we recently started building out our own solution. We designed Misty to be interactive with people, so something she could do is health screening and temperature screening. Something like Misty can improve that experience for people.
Avye: I’m founder of Girls Into Coding, so I'd like to ask you how important you think it is to get more girls involved in tech and STEM?
Ian: I think it's really important. I like that when we go to different events the classes are half girls and half boys. I think it's important because when you're working on any project, you need those perspectives. And I think having those different perspectives – not just men and women, but people from different backgrounds, raised in different areas, cities and countries – is so important because we all think about problems in different ways and can really make the end result much better when we work together.
When did you get into coding and robots?
Avye: When I was about seven I went to a club that introduced me to basic languages like Scratch. I gradually started going to workshops where I would learn more complicated things like robots, which for me was so much more interesting as it was more hands-on and exciting. Then I started running the workshops and I found I really enjoyed running robotics workshops. The robots I use for my workshops are basic ones that everyone can use—they move forwards, backwards, left, and right. It's important so that everyone can feel good about themselves that they've completed the project.
Ian: What's the coolest project you’ve built that you’re most excited about?
Avye: One of my favorite ones, because it was my first success, was my voice-command robot, which uses artificial intelligence. You would press the button and you'd speak into the microphone and you would say, “move arms, wave, arms, roll eyes, open mouth”. Based on which command you said, the robot would do it. I was able to win a competition through that, and I was also able to show that robot in many events. It was really cool to see everyone interacting with it.
What do you think the future of robotics has in store for us?
Ian: I’m excited about it. I think robots will be able to take a lot of the mundane tasks out of our lives. Since we spend a lot of time doing the laundry and washing the dishes—things that are sort of mindless. They're not really additive to us. We could be spending more time with people we love or friends or building robots or coding or whatever we're really into. So, I think robots will really help with that and I think that's the future.
Gen Arm 2Z gives a voice to the generations of tomorrow, sharing the thoughts of kids today on technology as it’s currently used and how it can be built for their future.
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