At ThingsCon Amsterdam 2017, Péter and I ran a second iteration of our machine learning workshop. We improved on our first attempt at TU Delft in a number of ways.
- We prepared example code for communicating with Wekinator from a wifi connected Arduino MKR1000 over OSC.
- We created a predefined breadboard setup.
- We developed three exercises, one for each type of Wekinator output: regression, classification and dynamic time warping.
In contrast to the first version, we had two hours to run through the whole thing, in stead of a day… So we had to cut some corners, and doubled down on walking participants through a number of exercises so that they would come out of it with some readily applicable skills.
We dubbed the workshop ‘prototyping the useless butler’, with thanks to Philip van Allen for the suggestion to frame the exercises around building something non-productive so that the focus was shifted to play and exploration.
All of the code, the circuit diagram and slides are over on GitHub. But I’ll summarise things here.
- We spent a very short amount of time introducing machine learning. We used Google’s Teachable Machine as an example and contrasted regular programming with using machine learning algorithms to train models. The point was to provide folks with just enough conceptual scaffolding so that the rest of the workshop would make sense.
- We then introduced our ‘toolchain’ which consists of Wekinator, the Arduino MKR1000 module and the OSC protocol. The aim of this toolchain is to allow designers who work in the IoT space to get a feel for the material properties of machine learning through hands-on tinkering. We tried to create a toolchain with as few moving parts as possible, because each additional component would introduce another point of failure which might require debugging. This toolchain would enable designers to either use machine learning to rapidly prototype interactive behaviour with minimal or no programming. It can also be used to prototype products that expose interactive machine learning features to end users. (For a speculative example of one such product, see Bjørn Karmann’s Objectifier.)
- Participants were then asked to set up all the required parts on their own workstation. A list can be found on the Useless Butler GitHub page.
- We then proceeded to build the circuit. We provided all the components and showed a Fritzing diagram to help people along. The basic idea of this circuit, the eponymous useless butler, was to have a sufficiently rich set of inputs and outputs with which to play, that would suit all three types of Wekinator output. So we settled on a pair of photoresistors or LDRs as inputs and an RGB LED as output.
- With the prerequisites installed and the circuit built we were ready to walk through the examples. For regression we mapped the continuous stream of readings from the two LDRs to three outputs, one each for the red, green and blue of the LED. For classification we put the state of both LDRs into one of four categories, each switching the RGB LED to a specific color (cyan, magenta, yellow or white). And finally, for dynamic time warping, we asked Wekinator to recognise one of three gestures and switch the RGB LED to one of three states (red, green or off).
When we reflected on the workshop afterwards, we agreed we now have a proven concept. Participants were able to get the toolchain up and running and could play around with iteratively training and evaluating their model until it behaved as intended.
However, there is still quite a bit of room for improvement. On a practical note, quite a bit of time was taken up by the building of the circuit, which isn’t the point of the workshop. One way of dealing with this is to bring those to a workshop pre-built. Doing so would enable us to get to the machine learning quicker and would open up time and space to also engage with the participants about the point of it all.
We’re keen on bringing this workshop to more settings in future. If we do, I’m sure we’ll find the opportunity to improve on things once more and I will report back here.
Many thanks to Iskander and the rest of the ThingsCon team for inviting us to the conference.