Review: “Twentyfirst Century Robot” by Brian David Johnson

Twentyfirst Century Robot by Brian David Johnson

The text of this book has been around in some form for a while, it is now appearing in paper.

These extremely enthusiastic guys are really into robots, and want you to be too! They want everyone to create their own personal robot. As they say, “we need 7 billion robots”. (They are thinking one per person, though that seems myopic to me: I want an army of friend!)

But not just any robots. Friendly, social robots. Each one different, customized to the person creating it. This book describes his “21st Century Robot Collective” and Creative Science Institute, which seek to make this vision real.

Johnson follows a “design by storytelling” methodology, imagining how he wants the robot to work, sketching the appearance, and writing stories. Every robot has a name from the start, and his own “Jimmy” is modeled after ET.

Everyone should build their own robot, he says. The physical design is made easy by the availability of 3D printing and the associated digital design tools. Indeed, constructing the body of a robot is within the reach of almost everyone.

The 21st century robots are social, and customized to do what you want your robot to do. This intelligence is supposed to be made possible by using a crowdsourcing concept, where robot brains are downloaded from shared Internet resources.

The important thing is to make this process open to everyone. He doesn’t want robots designed by labs, he wants everyone to design their own. The book illustrates (or tries to) this process, with four examples of stories he wrote, developing the character and behavior of his robot, Jimmy.

These stories present amazing, unbelievably cute and complex robots. They have naturalistic conversations. They have personalities. The love and grieve. They have mental breakdowns.


The rest of the book suggests that he has actually built such robots, with some details and lot’s of references to their web page. They have made various robots, some of which look like the drawings in the pictures, we get pages and pages of photos of robots. These, unfortunately, do not behave anything at all like the stories.

Disappointment number one.

Johnson implies that anyone can take his open source designs and make them do all these amazing thing. The book describes all the “open source” stuff that supposedly is available at their website. This includes hardware designs, software, software development support, and a “robot app store”.

However, none of the sources are available to date. Somehow they managed to complete the book, publish it and even ship copies to my local bookstore, but have yet to make any of the promised sources on line.

Disappointments number 2-100.

I can’t emphasize this point too much: the technology is described but is not really there. For this reason, I cannot actually evaluate the technical merits of the promised DIY toolkit.

Chapter 5 and a paper by Egerton ([2]) describe the software architecture of their robots. However, close reading of the book indicates that the software in the kits do not follow the architecture described in chapter 5. So just what does the software do? And how easy is it to play with? There is no way to tell, because we can’t get the software yet.

Even if the software and design files were available, there are serious questions about Johnson’s approach.

Yes, design should always start from imagination, and story telling is a great way to express these imagined results.

But Johnson is very sloppy with his logic. He tells stories about talking, caring, loving robots, and then tells us how to make a robot that walks and has a cute face. There is a huge gap between these two things!

Sometimes it seems that his whole approach is centered on appearance rather than behavior. “Once you have a vision for who your robot is, it is time to start designing the exoskeleton.” p. 190. This is certainly the Hollywood approach, all shiny surface, nothing inside.

I would also note that Jimmy and most of his designs are very deliberately “cute”, a la ET.  This makes them approachable and attractive to kids and so on.  But I have to say they don’t appeal to me (I guess I am attracted to mature mature people), and I have to think there is a risk of the Clippy disease (which is sort of the back side of the uncanny divide).

In a similar vein, Johnson and friends are excited about the prospect of children creating their own robots, to do things that kids want.  They give us drawings and concepts from six year olds, which suggest what kids would do if they could.

Looking at these ideas is kind of sad.  The kids want someone to play with them and do fun things with them and so on.  They are quite willing to project these wishes onto an imaginary robot.  Basically, they want to build a robot to do the things they would like to do with parents or other kids.  Even if they could build such a robot (and they certainy can’t today) would it really satisfy them?  Would it be good for them to have such a robot?   How would the robot navigate the tradeoffs of pleasing the child, protecting the child, and disciplining the child?

Here, of course, we see that Johnson’s agenda is, indeed, very childlike (as well as child oriented). His stories present interesting dilemmas in robot-human psychology (robots consumed by guilt, robots in love) but his design strategy is all about naively creating cuddly robots that are our friends.  Even if his technology existed (which it doesn’t seem to), I don’t think the results would be very close to what he imagines. We don’t have the foggiest notion how to program friendship, but I’m darn sure that “doing whatever I want you to” is not a formula for success–for either of us.

In another area, Johnson has an interesting concept of customizing the robot with ‘apps’, which are basically user scripts. Without access to the code, it’s hard to know exactly how these apps work, but the idea seems to be that, just like mobile phones, “Your robot could be a game machine, a search engine, or any other thing you can think of. But instead of locking your apps on the screen of your smartphone or tablet, now your apps can follow you around….” p.79

Huh? This doesn’t really make sense. What does making a robot that is a search engine mean? Why is this a good thing? How would it even work?

The only example “app” mentioned in detail is a robot that emits twitter as it wanders around. In today’s world, this counts as “social”, I guess, but is that it? Yet more junk on twitter? And what purpose is served by this walking tweeter?

So Many Broken Promises

What is going on here?

Where is all the open source stuff that is the essence of this book? Why did they publish a book that promised so much and delivers so little?

For the record, I’m still looking for:
3D printer files (STL files)
Software (not even links to ROS and other open source pieces)
App development (“My Robot”)
App store!

The web site does have:
Buy the book,
purchase a kit
descriptions of student projects,


  1.  Egerton, S., V. Callaghan, and G. Clarke. Using multiple personas in service robots to improve exploration strategies when mapping new environmnets. In Intelligent Environments, 2008 IET 4th International Conference on, 2008, 1-5.
  2.  Briand David Johnson, 21st Century Robot, Sebastopol, CA, Maker Media, 2015.


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