Innovation through Inspiration: open source announcement

Earlier this year, the Tesco Labs team began looking into how we could inspire primary school children to study STEM subjects – today, we’re delighted to share what we’ve developed.

Through our research into diversity in technology, we discovered that children as young as 4 years old form stereotypes around gender roles in various careers; with the result that many girls are less keen to study STEM subject than boys. As a result, we’ve tailored our outreach activities for primary school children to impress upon them that technology is not just “for boys” and that opportunities exist in a range of diverse roles within the technology industry. You may have read about our first activity, when we spent the day with Key Stage 1 students at Roundwood Primary School in Harpenden. (If you missed it, read the blog post here).

We used “Cubetto“, Primo Toys’ friendly wooden robot which teaches children the basics of programming through hands on play and adventure. In order to give the activity a retail technology slant, we worked with Ape Creative to produce customised accessories for the robot, giving it a simplified Tesco store layout to navigate around, whilst challenging the children to collect specific items from a bespoke shopping list; all to be gathered in their personalised shopping trolley.

The success of the activity, and the popularity amongst both schools and parents, has been overwhelming. We’ve connected with around 250 children so far, and intend to continue to grow this as much as we possibly can. So, we were delighted to be invited to talk about our work on stage at Retail Week’s Tech event this week.

The talk about our work, given by Head of Tesco Labs, Angela Maurer, not only covered the why, where and how of our work, but also the passion that the team have for continuing to address the gender imbalance in our industry, and the challenges that we face if we try to continue to do this as individuals. Which is why we are delighted to be able to open this activity up to other retailers, and look to give the opportunity to connect with schools in the same way to as many companies as possible.

From today, we are open sourcing all the materials we have used to bring this activity to life; from the tried and tested activity plan through to the bright and beautiful accessories created specifically with this in mind. If you would like to deliver this activity then all you will need to do is download the items and purchase the Cubetto kits that you need.

The links below allow you to download the pdf files of the original artwork. If you would like to download the indesign files, please email the Tesco Labs team who will be happy to share these.

Activity playbook

Print materials
Shop Layout Mat
Produce Cards
Shopping Lists

Primo Toys

Ape Creative

Finally, we’d love to hear your stories of the activities you lead using these tools! If you’d like to share them, please feel free to share them via email or twitter.

Bringing retail technology to life in the classroom

On 9 February, Roundwood Primary School in Harpenden opened their doors to the Tesco Labs team.

Colleagues were visiting with the aim of engaging children from years 1 and 2 in a new activity, designed to promote an understanding of technology in retail, coding and creative thinking. The brief for the session was to design and execute an event for children aged 5-6 (KS1), to last ninety minutes. The event should promote technology, and preferably work around the theme of retail. Following research which showed that children develop gender-related stereotypes around careers as young as 5 years old, the aim was to enthuse children about technology, and to dispel any preconceptions that the children may have about careers in technology being male-oriented.

In order to achieve this, we chose to work with the “Cubetto”, a small robot controlled by basic coding principles. Although the children had some basic experience of Scratch, only a handful had used Cubetto before. With a range of specially designed accessories, including a playmat showing the layout of a store, a range of shopping lists, and a flatpack mini-trolley (thanks to Ape Creative), the team were well equipped to bring the activities to life!


Three groups of thirty children participated, with great success. Following a short introduction to Tesco’s Technology team, and technology in retail, each group was fully engaged in the challenges set, which included creating their mini-trolley, learning how to put together a string of instructions for the robot, and finally completing complex routes around the “shop” to collect pre-determined items.

We were delighted with the way that the day ran, and would like to thank Laura Fricker of Roundwood Primary for inviting us, and helping to facilitate the day. With initial feedback from the children including more than one request to join the team, we’re looking forward to working more with the technology specialists of the future!

Will robots ever become aware of their own existence?

Science fiction writers like Asimov have written about this idea for some time. But could it ever happen?

Just before I left the office for the weekend, my colleague Nick posed this question to ponder.  Here are my thoughts. 

Science fiction writers like Asimov have written about this idea for some time.  Bicentennial Man and iRobot are examples of this, and there have been many memorable film ‘characters’ like HAL 9000 and David from AI that help us speculate what could happen if machines ever became self-aware.  But could this ever happen?

Well, perhaps the first concept to consider is that of self-awareness.   As humans, most of us would probably consider ourselves to be self-aware, sentient beings.  We’d probably be fairly comfortable in saying that some mammals, such as dolphins and primates, have at least some degree of self-awareness too. Cats and Dogs? Maybe.  Ants, probably not.  This suggests we tend to believe that intelligence is a prerequisite of self-awareness and that to be aware of its own existence a machine would need to be intelligent.  But is this possible?

This is a big question, on which there are two broad perspectives.  The symbolic AI perspective suggests that even if machines become infinitely complex, they will only appear to show intelligent behaviours rather than possessing actual innate intelligence. Take chess, for example. We assume that any human who is good at chess is also intelligent.  We’d think that a dog that could play chess was nothing short of miraculous.  But a computer, well, even if it’s hard to beat we know that it’s just following a set of rules.  Similarly Expert systems use a large set of rules to come to a decision.  If the rule base is infinitely large, it might seem omniscient. It might even seem to be self-aware, but would it be?  Google Chinese Room and let me know what you think.

An alternative perspective is connectionist AI.  With tools like neural networks, we can simulate intelligence by simulating how the brain actually works, with layers of interconnected neurons that fire when they are sufficiently excited by an external stimulus. At the moment, the simulation is pretty crude, since the computing power required to handle the interconnections is enormous.  But here’s the killer question: if we were able to simulate a human brain at a deep enough granularity, and situate it in a robot that had the same senses we do, would it be intelligent? Would it be self-aware?  Would the Chinese Room argument still apply?

One final difficulty to consider is that there is also no universally agreed definition of what intelligence is, or how it can be measured.  Sure, we have metrics like IQ, but these tend to be flawed due to their cultural bias.  For example, a typical IQ test question might involve adding together some letters based on their positions in the alphabet, which measures a) ability to add b) knowing the sequence of the alphabet c) taking a mental leap – which typically comes from having seen this kind of puzzle before.  This is all culturally dependant information: it measure experience rather than intelligence. Intelligence is more a measure of capacity to acquire capacity.  The Turing test, which implies that any computer that is capable of fooling a human into thinking it is another human must be intelligent, suffers from the same failings.

So in conclusion there seems to be no reason why machines could not eventually become self-aware, given enough computing power.  But we probably shouldn’t assume that once they are, they would be able to tell us about it.   It would be also interesting how they would they look upon their relationship with us?  Will they consider us to be violent, and if so, how will they react? *  Tell us what you think!

*Possibly with a blue screen and a frowny face.

2014: The Year Of The Robot!

Is 2014 the year of the robot? Read on for our opinion.

I’ve been waiting for this year for a long time! Finally… FINALLY… I’m sensing that this is the Year of the Robot. I’ve been promised this year all my life from the earliest TV shows to the latest Robocop movie so I’m glad it’s finally here.

Google’s purchase of major military robot maker Boston Dynamics is the marker. Combining the Big G’s powerful algorithms and those ominous walking machines means that all the component pieces are now ready to be built together.

At the other end of the spectrum of robotic technology are the hobbyist components that can be formed into home-brew robots.

I spent my Christmas break building a 4-wheel drive robot that combines a Raspberry Pi with an Arduino control board. The Raspberry Pi is being taught to follow a red ball using its HD camera, and compares that to an image of the red ball it has stored in memory. It works out the difference between where the red ball is in the viewfinder and its ideal image, and send commands to the Arduino to move the 4 wheel drive motors in such a way that it ‘thinks’ will align the two balls. If the ball in the viewfinder is too small, the robot will move forward. If too large, backwards. If too much to the left, a right ‘spin’ is applied, and so forth.

Neither the Raspberry Pi or Arduino are powerful computers, but they are cheap, can run off batteries and give a complete whiteboard on which to experiment. The limit is your imagination – all you need is a sense of how to program. Those of us with some programming experience can even teach the Raspberry Pi to program itself – using the original robot control program to learn and write out adapted source code which it then proceeds to run. Adapting and evolving as its environment changes, the robot will learn more and adjust as it gains experience.

At the powerful end of the scale, I think it’s only a matter of time before robots reach ‘sentience’ – that is, a sense of their own existence. Once we get there, I’m quite sure a whole moral landscape will be encountered; a landscape that starts with the question: Do robots dream of electric sheep?