Nathan Melenbrink — Who Decides What's Important to You?
Simplify your life. Do less, better.


Nathan Melenbrink is a researcher that explores how simple robots can cooperate in intelligent swarms to build things on their own. He believes technology can make people's lives better, but only if we stop using our best minds to farm clicks and likes. In this episode, we talk about teaching, news neutrality, liking new things and acquiring taste, and much more.

Nathan is a Fellow in Computer Science at the Wyss Institute, where his research focuses on swarm robotics for construction. He has taught courses related to design, computation, robotics and CAD/CAM at institutions such as MIT, Virginia Tech, and the University of Hong Kong, and is currently an Adjunct Professor at Northeastern University. His industry experience as an architect and computational designer includes offices such as UNStudio, Playze, and ECADI. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Virginia Tech and a Masters in Design Studies in Technology from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He is a Doctoral Candidate at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart.


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Episode Notes

  • Intro. [0:00]
  • Who is Nathan Melenbrink? A brief introduction to Nathan's career. [0:32]
  • Teaching gives Nathan an immediate satisfaction of imparting students with knowledge of some kind, and enabled him to do robotics at a more advanced level. [3:21]
  • What is NuVu? Learn about the teaching model of this innovation school, how its founders conceived it, and how it is growing. [5:42]
  • Teaching international robotics workshops to young students. [9:45]
  • Nathan's academic research on swarm robotics as part of the Self-organizing Systems Research Group (SSRG) at Harvard University ran by Professor Rhadika Nagpal and Justin Werfel. [11:34]
  • What's role of swarm robots in design automation, architecture, and the built environment? [13:10]
  • How will automation, artificial intelligence, and better software affect our work life? [14:32]
  • "Robots replace tasks, not jobs." How are the tasks that compose professional jobs are going to change? [17:01]
  • What tasks have already been replaced by software? [18:21]
  • Is automation (say, consumer robotics for off-loading tedious chores) going to have a transformative impact on our lifestyle? [19:46]
  • Who is going to profit from automation? Nathan's main reason to be interested in technology is its promise to make people's life better, but he argues something is wrong with the current model and what we could do to improve it. [21:39]
  • Great minds to farm clicks and likes. [23:09]
  • A universal basic income. [23:43]
  • What would you do if you didn't have to work? [25:20]
  • Do the way you earn money and what gives meaning to your life need to be the same thing? [26:28]
  • "The passion hypothesis." [26:54]
  • Why is Michael Jordan the best basketball player that ever lived? Learn about Michael Jordan's "Love of the Game Clause." [30:16]
  • How does Nathan understand success? [32:04]
  • How are we consuming news and media feeds? [33:10]
  • Neutral and verifiable news: "We don't want to let some algorithm decide what's important to us, even if that's influenced by what we say we like." [34:26]
  • How can blockchain technology help news neutrality? [36:48]
  • Why do we check the news? "The human beings throughout history who were most adept at gathering acquiring information from their environment were more likely to reproduce and have fertile offspring." [39:35]
  • Learn about Nathan media consumption habits. [43:15]
  • What's your relationship with social media? [44:19]
  • Living in China versus the US. [47:01]
  • Habits (and frugality) in China. [49:22]
  • Learning Mandarin - Nathan's immersion in the culture and language of Shanghai. [50:29]
  • Meditative moments Nathan uses to disconnect. [52:47]
  • The ideological Turing test: Can you give the position of your political adversary so well to make us believe you have that position? [55:58]
  • What if you received suggestions of things you are supposed to dislike? [57:41]
  • Can you force yourself to like new things and acquire taste? [1:01:56]
  • A purchase that recently influenced your life. [1:05:13]
  • An object that makes your life easier. [1:05:44]
  • Something you are dependent on. [1:06:11]
  • Being slightly unprepared when you are traveling abroad is.. [1:06:17]
  • What do you say to yourself when you wake up? [1:06:43]
  • A sentence to the world. [1:06:49]
  • Clothing. [1:06:56]
  • Money. [1:07:16]
  • Self-imposed restrictions. [1:07:37]
  • How do you picture a healthy relationship with technology? "A relationship where it's easy for you to imaging spending a considerable amount of time without it." [1:07:50]
  • Boredom. [1:08:01]
  • Do you consider your life simple? [1:08:11]
  • Nathan's organizational tools. [1:08:29]
  • Open source versus private intellectual property. [1:09:50]
  • Other people's habits (and the car culture of America). [1:10:25]
  • Book recommendations - Get to know Nathan's efforts to expose himself to other political views. [1:11:24]
  • Find Nathan online. [1:12:11]
  • Art. [1:12:51]
  • How does Nathan understand simplicity? [1:13:56]
  • How much information can we get? How much information do we need? [1:16:06]
  • Outro. [1:22:13]

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September 4, 2018

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