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Institute for Applied Autonomy


July 7th, 2009

Nike Chalkbot Rips-off Streetwriter

This week Nike unveiled a cool "new" chalk-writing robot used to print messages on the road during the Tour de France bicycle race. The trouble is, the robot isn't so new after all. The Nike Chalkbot is nearly identical to the "Streetwriter" we began developing ten years ago.

Since 1998, the Institute for Applied Autonomy has been inventing and building robots to protest the militarization of robotics research and to reassert the public's ownership of public space. Among the machines we produced were GraffitiWriter, a small remote controlled robot capable of printing high-speed text graffiti on the pavement while driving, StreetWriter, a black cargo van capable of printing large text messages the width of a traffic lane while driving, and SWX a more compact trailer version of the same. Largely without permission, these robots were used to print politically controversial messages in 6 countries and major cities across the US. In 2004 the StreetWriter project was deployed as the SWX in protest against the first DARPA Grand Challenge where its mission was to print Isaac Asimov's First Rule of Robotics (i.e.: "A ROBOT MUST NOT KILL") at the starting line of the military robotics event.

In pointing out that the Nike Chalkbot is a higher-resolution/higher-budget but otherwise obvious descendent of the StreetWriter (SWX), we do not claim any sort of ownership over the project or the idea. We have always been very open about the inner working of our machines, publishing "how-to" plans and helping other artists and activists build similar devices. While we have long expected our anti-corporate project to one day be reappropriated as an advertising scheme, we are surprised that in this case, the culprits are close associates. According to sources close to the project, Chalkbot was built by an early IAA member working under contract for Deeplocal, a startup company founded by a onetime “hacktivist”. Deeplocal in turn is under contract with the Wieden+Kennedy PR agency, which was in turn hired by Nike. The IAA was neither contacted nor consulted on the Chalkbot.

Beyond wanting to reassure our friends that the IAA had nothing to do with the Nike project, we issue this release because we are concerned by the corporate appropriation of ‘outsider’ research projects without acknowledgement of the amateur, collective, hobbyist, and activist communities upon which projects like Chalkbot are built. Young people witnessing the Chalkbot on television need to know this was not handed down from a corporate research lab, but was made on nights and weekends by the hard work of people not unlike themselves.

We certainly understand our friends’ decision to work for Nike -- we all have bills to pay. It is unfortunate that as they enriched themselves, they were unable to also enrich the communities that nurtured their own development. We see this primarily as a failure of imagination, which we understand is a common side effect of working too closely with corporate sponsors. We helpfully suggest the following remedial “karma-cleansing” activities:

  1. Publish their plans + code, in keeping with the open nature of the project.
  2. Feature a historical accounting of the technical and ideological origins of the robot prominently on their website and related publications.
  3. Make the Chalkbot available for use by anti-corporate activists, free of charge.
  4. Provide proportional financial support to new projects that share the anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial aims from which this project emerged.

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Update: July 7, 2009