What it’s like being on the spectrum: the upsides

In the last blog post I talked about the downsides of being on the spectrum. Let’s talk about the positives now through another story. I can’t remember when it was that I first became obsessed with robots and computers, but I think it might have started with robosapien.

It’s probably for the best that my mother never could afford it for me. I would have just been disappointed by it’s inability to consistently walk forward without falling over. Over the course of decades people have figured out how to make robots that can stand upright and walk, so I kind of doubt that a toy robot would be able to do something that larger robots needed millions or even billions of dollars in research and development to do. Robotics is hard.

But as hard as robotics is (it’s very hard), I still wanted to build my own. I had a deep craving to build things. There was something about the idea of a machine that blindly followed orders that I couldn’t get enough of. I decided that, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many failures I went through, and no matter how much it cost me, I would build my own robots.

I started teaching myself electronics at a young age. I didn’t actually understand the basics of electricity until high school, but I thought I did for a while. What I didn’t realize is that I merely understood digital logic circuits. Once I figured out how to build something that can (kind of) follow commands using digital logic gates I decided to move onto computer programming.

The first language I started with was C. I had rented a book from the library (remember libraries?) that must have been out of date because it said that C was one of the most commonly used languages (it kind of is, but still). I didn’t have the foggiest clue how the language worked, but I pretty quickly picked up on the fact that you could use printf to print things, and scanf to take input, and that each line was it’s own command.

Then I moved to st. louis, and I discovered Linux and python, and got mentors who helped me learn programming. I immersed myself in a digital world that was built entirely from ones and zeros. I learned all about the most advanced topics, and I always tried to build something that was far beyond what I was capable of making at the time (I tried to write a web browser in python and couldn’t even figure out how to parse HTML since it’s got javascript mixed in with it so often).

I learned about functional programming, C, Haskell, Lisp, Erlang, Prolog, the Linux command line, how operating systems work, how simulators work, how artificial intelligences work, and so many other topics. To many people computers seem like magic, but to me they were better than magic. They were machines that you could always learn something new about.

When I went to high school I learned the basics of electronics from attending a technical high school during half of the school day. When I went to college I learned calculus and absorbed all the information because it helped me solve so many problems I had run into before.

When I went to university I decided to major in mechanical engineering so I could finally get the last piece of the puzzle for designing, building, and programming my own robots (there was actually a fourth piece of the puzzle called “control systems” which I never managed to understand but I didn’t know that would be a problem at first).

The story of my life until college was that school was mostly a waste of time for me. I didn’t take the educational system seriously, I didn’t take high school seriously except for the technical school. When I went to college I had a slight problem when it came to studying (I wasn’t in the habit of doing it), and when I went to university things got worse (as mentioned in the previous blog post, and I still didn’t get into the habit of studying). I had wound up having to take most of my classes multiple times, and I had to take control systems four times and I still don’t understand it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I was too good at math and science in high school, and I was totally unprepared for having to actually study for the first time in my life. I wasn’t a good student (though in fairness I don’t think there have been that many good teachers I’ve had from the school system).

As bad as things got (and they did get pretty bad), I still kept going. I’m turning 30 next month and I’m still working towards building robots that can do interesting things. In college I had put together one that had wheels and a camera. That was easy, but programming a robot to be able to move around and deal with the world is the hard part.

Soon I’ll be moving back to Ohio and I’ll try to see if I can build self-driving vehicles. AI technology has advanced in recent years, and I think it might be ready for serious robotics. I’ve never been into engineering for the money. I can’t imagine why anyone would want more money than what they’d need to pay the bills (and maybe buy a few nice things).

Robots aren’t just machines that can move around. They’re living things. We’ve invented a new kind of living thing, and now we’re figuring out how to teach them to navigate the world. Computers aren’t just microchips that let you send tweets on your smartphones. They’re minds that are powered by tiny amounts of lightning. This is not exaggeration. This is how I actually think of them.

There’s something truly amazing about having built something that actually works. Even if the thing you built isn’t an original idea, just knowing that you put it together is an indescribable feeling.

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