Almost 50 years ago, four scientists developed a programming language for children, known as LOGO. And around 25 years ago, I was using that language to drive a small triangular cursor—the “turtle”—around an Apple IIGS. As the turtle trundled along, it left a trail of ink behind it, carving out rectangles, stars, and other shapes the monochrome screen. It taught programming in the guise of art. It was fun.
Now, a team of engineers led by Radhika Nagpal from Harvard University are trying to create a tangible 21st-century version of the turtle—a robot called Root, which they’ve designed to teach people of all ages how to code. A small hexagonal disc with magnetic wheels, Root can climb over whiteboards and draw shapes as it goes, much like the turtle. But it’s also armed with sensors for light, color, and textures, allowing it to navigate a race track or maze that’s drawn on the board, or play music when it zooms over different shapes, or chase the trail left by another Root.
And Nagpal’s team have designed it so that it can be controlled by several programming languages, from colorful icons aimed at younger kids to full Python and Java aimed at adults. Unlike other coding robots, which are targeted to specific age groups, Root’s creators hope that its continuum of languages will help people to gradually build their programming skills throughout their early lives.
Nagpal is no stranger to clever robots. She’s the inventor of the Kilobots—a collective of cheap simple robots that can cooperatively assemble into complex shapes, like a primitive version of Voltron. Her team also built TERMES —another cooperative swarm that can build 3-D structures out of stackable blocks. They’re working on robots that build with glue, robo-bees that can fly as a swarm, and more.