University News

YouTube star entertains with faulty robots

Simone Giertz, robot comedian, discusses process, inspiration for viral videos of bad bots

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2016

Simone Giertz, affectionately titled “Queen of shitty robots” by fans of her YouTube videos, gave a GIF-laden presentation on her playful engineering work Friday afternoon in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Giertz’s videos have attracted a total of 15 million views, said Michael Littman, professor of computer science and host of the event.

Giertz programs robots that function poorly for comedic effect. Her creations, constructed with eclectic components like mannequin pieces and cooking knives, include a robot that slathered Stephen Colbert’s face with lipstick on the Late Show earlier this month. Another spills cereal in an arc across a table, drops the box afterward and then does the same with a milk carton. In the video Giertz made to showcase the machine, she keeps a straight face while the clumsy robot lifts cereal into her mouth.

Following a process she calls “ideas first, tools later,” Giertz learns whatever she needs in order to build a project. She is not formally trained as an engineer, nor did she finish college. “Enthusiasm is a much better fuel than duty,” she said, lamenting the fact that she didn’t spend more time when she was younger doing what she wanted to do. “You don’t always have to have a reason why,” she said. “Creating things is a purpose in itself.”

And sometimes “your ideas are smarter than you,” Giertz added. One of her first robots was a “toothbrush helmet,” featuring a toothbrush that flipped down from a helmet. Even though the contraption was a joke, it could be immensely helpful for those suffering from mobility problems, others told Giertz.

In an effort to fulfill her lifelong goal of emulating the mysterious character Trinity from “The Matrix”, Giertz declined to reveal her next robot project. But she is developing two television shows that focus on her work, as well as a hardware line, she added.

Despite her success, some people online use Giertz’s intentional failures as a way to criticize female engineers, calling her the “Kardashian of tech.” As a woman in technology, or as any minority in any area, “you get pinned,” Giertz said. “You’re kind of a posterchild.”

“I might be bad at building things, but I’m not that bad at building things,” she added. “I definitely create the failure.”

People tell Giertz she is a role model for young women, but she accepts this suggestion with a qualifier. “I can be a role model for anyone,” she said. “My gender is not my main feature.”

Giertz’s creations defy gender stereotypes and categorizations in many ways. “A lot of your robots seem like they’re supposed to do things that we think of as girly stuff, or women’s work,” said Lynne Joyrich, chair of modern culture and media. “But you take these things and you weaponize them,” referring to the violent and aggressive movements of the dysfunctional robots.

The robots are often designed to complete everyday tasks Giertz would rather avoid, she said. Instead of doing them, she builds awful robots.

“If you’re okay with being bad at things, that’s the best life skill ever,” Giertz said. “Suddenly you can do anything.”