Angry roboticist drops science

Here's Katy Levinson's semi-drunken robotics tutorial from DEFCON XX in Vegas this past summer. To get a sense of Levinson's presentation style, imagine if Bill Hicks was a young, female roboticist. Watch this presentation and you will learn that four-way linkages are pimp, bolts are zinc-plated turds, and all robots should wear sunglasses. Levinson's last gig was designing an autonomous robot for the aborted US lunar mission, and now she works to save Hacker Dojo, the embattled hackspace in Mountain View that incubated Pinterest.

By popular demand, Defcon's angry little roboticist is back with more stories of robot designs gone awry that make practical lessons on making better robots. Drinking will happen: vodka-absconding scoundrels are not invited.

This talk will cover material assuming the average audience member is a relatively intelligent coder with a high-school physics/math background and has seen linear algebra/calculus before. The intent is to navigate people new to robotics around many lessons my teams and I learned the "hard way," and to introduce enough vocabulary for a self-teaching student to bridge the gap between amateur and novice professional robotics. It will not cover why your Arduino doesn't work when you plugged your USB tx into your RS232 tx.

Katy Levinson Defcon 20 - Robots: You're Still Doing It Wrong


  1. It is pretty hard to take a woman in a dress seriously. Someone so pretty can’t possibly be smart or have anything intelligent to say on the subject of robotics. She’s probably making up all that stuff about learning from her mistakes. I’d be willing to be she snuck out of the kitchen and read all that stuff in her husband’s lab notes. The proof is in the video; she’s wearing his hat. (All assholery aside, she’s a damn genius who knows better than to take herself too seriously)

    1. You got me. In this video I actually am being used as a puppet with a cleverly hidden exoskeleton (controlled by men who actually understand robots).

      1. Someone was upset you wore a dress to an earlier appearance, so at this appearance you wore a fancier dress. That’s beyond awesome. Kicking that topic to the curb, I loved the whole talk. You were maybe just a little bit energetic, but we learned what ought to be valuable lessons in building robots and some fun stuff about NASA and the less obvious challenges of doing stuff on the moon. Worth an hour of my time, thanks!

  2. Presentation style? What presentation style?

    That was painful

    I don’t doubt she’s brilliant, but she’s not so good at presenting (like having a prof in college who is a leader in her field, but doesn’t really have a knack for teaching)

    1.  Did you understand what she said? Did it make sense?

      Depending on the answer to this question you can talk about efficacy. Oh wait, your talking about style!

      (Yes, it was a bit rough at moments I’ll give you that much, but I was able to follow the presentation, it made sense and I learned a few things)

      1. The only thing I particularly would suggest is tightening up preparation a bit for the “um, um” gaps and the blips in remembering things, but once the vodka starts all bets are off anyway. I can see how some people might find the pause-for-cute-photo technique to be unnecessary/a distraction, but I have no complaints about it. 

        That being said, this isn’t Toastmasters, this is fucking DEFCON. You’re passionate about robotics (this is the biggest understatement on the Internet for the next five minutes) and you’ve been selected to give a talk about it . If you want professional and ultra-slick and rehearsed, look at academic presentations (the serious kind where people are in suits, not the practical-demo kind), not DEFCON.

        Also, of course you’re hung-over. It’s DEFCON.

  3. I am in love!

    She almost made me wish I had done engineering (like everyone thought I would) for about 10 seconds…

  4. The bit about zinc-plated turds piqued my interest, but not enough to watch a 49-minute lecture on robotics. I presume she’s referring to how zinc-plated hardware can still corrode, given enough wear and tear. Stainless steel and aluminum are probably better choices, when TIG welding isn’t practical.

    1. I haven’t watched the video either, but zinc plated bolts are more or less self defeating if used in a heavily corrosive environment since the nut cuts into the threads and wears off the zinc…

      Bare aluminum (like metal on metal contact) also has issues with binding due to aluminum oxide formation.

      1.  I’m super interested in learning more about this (I’ve never designed for a longer-term project, so the areas of stress over time and corrosion are things we haven’t touched yet). Can you point me to some science?

    2.  It was actually meant to remind newbie roboticists (who frequently have almost no mechanical background whatsoever) that normal bolts off the shelf aren’t meant to be put into sheer. Software people picking up physical design for the first time tends to be facepalmy.

      1. We have open source libraries for telling robots how to move forward, backwards, how to turn left or right. Why not have open source libraries for roboticists, telling them how not to destroy walls or start fires? For that matter, open source libraries of lessons learned ought to be everywhere for everything.

  5. As a software guy who keeps coming back to hardware, iterating closer and closer to making something vaguely robotish, it’s great to see examples of where things go wrong — so when I am finished facepalming — or perhaps even before then — I’ll think “Wait, wasn’t there some drunk woman ranting about that…if only I can remember where and in what capacity…” and it will come back to me.

    Also, awesome.

  6. Please keep sending the stories, photos and videos of failbots! These are amazing, and if you guys are cool with it, I’d love to share your experiences with everybody next year!

  7. I really enjoyed this, it was most refreshing to see so much emphasis on good old-fashioned engineering like analogue control theory and dynamics to get things done elegantly and intelligently rather than by throwing lots of code at problems.

    I was most impressed at the ablity to explain complicated things so well while pished, a talent I can only dream of having. I did find all the nerd humour cliches all too familiar and tiresome, however. Ms. Levinson is a steel actuated fist in the face of stereotypes associated with women in science, but she doesn’t assure me that being in science doesn’t necessarily mean being “from the internet lololol!” Does she care? Probably not, and neither should you.

    Cracking work!

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