Why you should make useless things | Simone Giertz

Hello. My name is Simone. You know how people tell you
if you get nervous when onstage, picture people in the audience naked? Like it’s this thing that’s supposed
to make you feel better. But I was thinking — picturing all of you naked in 2018
feels kind of weird and wrong. Like, we’re working really hard
on moving past stuff like that, so we need a new method of dealing with if you get nervous onstage. And I realized that what I’d really like is that I can look at you
as much as you’re looking at me — just to even things out a little bit. So if I had way more eyeballs, then we’d all be
really comfortable, right? So in preparation for this talk,
I made myself a shirt. (Rattling) (Laughter) It’s googly eyes. It took me 14 hours and 227 googly eyes to make this shirt. And being able to look at you
as much as you’re looking at me is actually only half
of the reason I made this. The other half is being able to do this. (Googly eyes rattle) (Laughter) So I do a lot of things like this. I see a problem and I invent
some sort of solution to it. For example, brushing your teeth. Like, it’s this thing we all have to do,
it’s kind of boring, and nobody really likes it. If there were any
seven-year-olds in the audience, they’d be like, “Yes!” So what about if you had
a machine that could do it for you? (Laughter) I call it … I call it “The Toothbrush Helmet.” (Laughter) (Robot arm buzzing) (Laughter) (Applause) So my toothbrush helmet is recommended
by zero out of 10 dentists, and it definitely did not
revolutionize the world of dentistry, but it did completely change my life. Because I finished making this toothbrush
helmet three years ago and after I finished making it, I went into my living room
and I put up a camera, and I filmed a seven-second
clip of it working. And by now, this is a pretty standard
modern-day fairy tale of girl posting on the internet, the internet takes the girl by storm, thousands of men voyage
into the comment sections to ask for her hand in marriage — (Laughter) She ignores all of them,
starts a YouTube channel and keeps on building robots. Since then, I’ve carved out this little
niche for myself on the internet as an inventor of useless machines, because as we all know, the easiest way
to be at the top of your field is to choose a very small field. (Laughter) (Applause) So I run a YouTube channel
about my machines, and I’ve done things
like cutting hair with drones — (Drone buzzes) (Laughter) (Drone crashes) (Laughter) (Drone buzzes) (Laughter) (Applause) To a machine that helps me
wake up in the morning — (Alarm) (Laughter) (Video) Simone: Ow! To this machine
that helps me chop vegetables. (Knives chop) I’m not an engineer. I did not study engineering in school. But I was a super ambitious
student growing up. In middle school and high school,
I had straight A’s, and I graduated at the top of my year. On the flip side of that, I struggled with very severe
performance anxiety. Here’s an email I sent
to my brother around that time. “You won’t understand
how difficult it is for me to tell you, to confess this. I’m so freaking embarrassed. I don’t want people
to think that I’m stupid. Now I’m starting to cry too. Damn.” And no, I did not accidentally burn
our parents’ house down. The thing I’m writing about in the email
and the thing I’m so upset about is that I got a B on a math test. So something obviously happened
between here and here. (Laughter) One of those things was puberty. (Laughter) Beautiful time indeed. But moreover, I got interested in building robots, and I wanted to teach myself
about hardware. But building things with hardware,
especially if you’re teaching yourself, is something that’s really
difficult to do. It has a high likelihood of failure and moreover, it has a high likelihood
of making you feel stupid. And that was my biggest fear at the time. So I came up with a setup that would
guarantee success 100 percent of the time. With my setup, it would be
nearly impossible to fail. And that was that instead
of trying to succeed, I was going to try to build
things that would fail. And even though I didn’t
realize it at the time, building stupid things
was actually quite smart, because as I kept on
learning about hardware, for the first time in my life, I did not have to deal
with my performance anxiety. And as soon as I removed
all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly
got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play. So as an inventor, I’m interested in things
that people struggle with. It can be small things or big things
or medium-sized things and something like giving a TED talk
presents this whole new set of problems that I can solve. And identifying a problem
is the first step in my process of building a useless machine. So before I came here, I sat down and I thought of some
of the potential problems I might have in giving this talk. Forgetting what to say. That people won’t laugh — that’s you. Or even worse, that you’ll laugh at the wrong things — that was an OK part to laugh at, thank you. (Laughter) Or that when I get nervous,
my hands start shaking and I’m really self-conscious about it. Or that my fly has been
open this entire time and all of you noticed but I didn’t, but it’s closed so we’re
all good on that one. But one thing I’m actually really
nervous about is my hands shaking. I remember when I was a kid, giving presentations in school, I would have my notes on a piece of paper, and I would put a notebook
behind the paper so that people wouldn’t be able
to see the paper quivering. And I give a lot of talks. I know that about half of you
in the audience are probably like, “Building useless machines is really fun, but how is this in any way
or form a business?” And giving talks is a part of it. And the arrangers always put out
a glass of water for you onstage so you have something to drink
if you get thirsty, and I always so badly
want to drink that water, but I don’t dare to pick the glass up because then people might be able
to see that my hands are shaking. So what about a machine
that hands you a glass of water? Sold to the nervous girl
in the googly-eye shirt. Actually, I need to take this off
because I have a thing — (Googly eyes rattle) Oh. (Clanking) (Laughter) I still don’t know what to call this, but I think some sort of
“head orbit device,” because it rotates
this platform around you and you can put anything on it. You can have a camera;
you can get photos of your entire head. Like it’s really —
it’s a very versatile machine. (Laughter) OK, and I have — I mean, you can put
some snacks on it, for example, if you want to. I have some popcorn here. And you just put a little bit like that. And then you want to — there’s some sacrifices for science — just some popcorn falling on the floor. Let’s do the long way around. (Robot buzzes) (Laughter) And then you have a little hand. You need to adjust the height of it, and you just do it by shrugging. (Laughter) (Applause) It has a little hand. (Hand thwacks) (Laughter) (Applause) I just bumped my mic off, but I think we’re all good. OK, also I need to chew this popcorn, so if you guys could
just clap your hands a little bit more — (Applause) OK, so it’s like your own
little personal solar system, because I’m a millennial, so I want everything to revolve around me. (Laughter) Back to the glass of water,
that’s what we’re here for. So, I promise — I mean, it still has — it doesn’t have any water in it, I’m sorry. But I still need to work
on this machine a little bit because I still need to pick up the glass
and put it on the platform, but if your hands
are shaking a little bit, nobody’s going to notice because you’re wearing
a very mesmerizing piece of equipment. So, we’re all good. OK. (Robot buzzes) (Singing) Oh no, it got stuck. Isn’t it comforting that even robots
sometimes get stage fright? It just gets stuck a little bit. It’s very human of them. Oh wait, let’s go back a little bit, and then — (Glass falls) (Laughter) Isn’t it a beautiful time to be alive? (Laughter) (Applause) So as much as my machines can seem
like simple engineering slapstick, I realize that I stumbled
on something bigger than that. It’s this expression of joy and humility
that often gets lost in engineering, and for me it was a way
to learn about hardware without having my performance
anxiety get in the way. I often get asked if I think I’m ever
going to build something useful, and maybe someday I will. But the way I see it, I already have because I’ve built myself this job and it’s something that I could
never have planned for, or that I could — (Applause) It’s something that I could
never have planned for. Instead it happened just because
I was enthusiastic about what I was doing, and I was sharing that enthusiasm
with other people. To me that’s the true beauty
of making useless things, because it’s this acknowledgment that you don’t always know
what the best answer is. And it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know
exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet
isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question. Thank you. (Applause)

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