Woman vs. Artificial Intelligence: the LEGO Challenge

On human creativity, AI Hype vs. Reality, and the power of play. Read until the end for a Realists twist

Woman vs. Artificial Intelligence: the LEGO Challenge

Realist or Technophobe?

People who cast a critical look on technological progress are often quickly dismissed as Luddites or killjoys. Never mind that the myth of Luddites has been thoroughly debunked (recommended read: The Luddites Were Onto Something).

But I get it: exposing the detrimental side of technology and mass media may make one appear as a curmudgeon, someone is only capable of criticizing things instead of offering positive takes on the world. After my latest post – Visions of the Future – I realized I could fall into that category: about being someone who can easily critique things and only bring up the dangers of this brave new technological world. Far from it: as I often say, the mission of The Realists is to make people use technology in a more mindful way, without being used by it.

This week’s post is about a potentially bright, positive use of machine learning that feels like magic – and it’s the perfect example of technological advancements put to good use.

But there is a twist: my first draft of this post is from Tuesday, three days ago. I think it may be appropriate to format this essay diary-style, because there have been crucial developments along the way.

Tuesday February 13: A positive use case of machine learning: LEGO & Brickit

Last week, while catching up with my super talented friend Tara, the conversation turned to LEGOs. I was telling her how these days my little one and I play with LEGOs for at least an hour a day every day, after I pick her up from pre-school. Pure bliss for me. (Side note: for convenience’s sake I will refer to My Child as “MC” from now on.)

Tara asked me: “Have you heard of Brickit?”

I had not.

Brickit is an app - built by a dad - that uses machine learning to scan and analyze LEGO pieces scattered on the floor and offers numerous build ideas: houses, objects, vehicles and characters that can be constructed with the pieces you have.

In one word, magic.

How could I have not heard of it? My happy place is the LEGO store. I have been obsessed with LEGOs since my childhood. Before having a child of my own, when I still had a lot of free time, I could spend hours on weekend afternoons building expert sets and also creating miniature vignettes (for Christmas 2017 I created LEGO vignettes for each family member - they were a huge success). At home in Paris and at my parents’ house in Italy, I have LEGOs meticulously organized in transparent acrylic drawers, sorted by color.

My favorite set is the Palace Cinema, which I tweaked and personalized, to make it appear it is screening my film The Illusionists:

My custom made LEGO Palace Cinema, showing my film's poster and the marquee announcing a screening of The Illusionists with a Q&A with the director
My custom made LEGO Palace Cinema, showing my film's poster and the marquee announcing a screening of The Illusionists with a Q&A with the director
My character in the cinema's screening room, standing before a real still from my documentary The Illusionists on the big screen
My character in the cinema's screening room, standing before a real still from my documentary The Illusionists on the big screen

Brickit is set to revolutionize my life.

My childhood LEGO collection has dozens of sets that I carefully preserved through the years. And now that my child is a fellow LEGO aficionada, we have thousands of pieces waiting to be used for interesting construction projects.

I downloaded Brickit right after the end of my phone call with Tara. And I literally gasped when I watched the video tutorial from the app:

An official video from Brickit showing how the app works

I can’t wait to use it with my own LEGO collection.

Wednesday February 14: The case for creative play

I spend about six hours a day with my child - before / after school - during MC’s waking hours. As I explained in a previous post, all screens and devices are put away when I’m with MC. In the baby and early toddler years we would spend a lot of time with friends at the park… and reading books at home. Now, during the winter months, with chilly temperatures outside and parks closing earlier as the night falls, we can play with LEGOs for hours.

Our Paris living room table is invaded by LEGO homes, an ice cream shop, a prison, a tram, dozens of characters and accessories (special thanks to my husband for being very supportive of this passion).

We have countless hours of fun and creative play away from screens. Time simply flies. And it’s adorable to see MC creating storylines around the lives of LEGO characters and making them talk among themselves. Studies have shown the benefits of playing with LEGOs – to nurture creativity, spatial awareness, collaboration, perseverance and self-confidence (recommended read: 10 Incredible Benefits of Playing with Lego).

I’ve never pressured MC to play with LEGOs. Far from it. I suppose she’s been intrigued by them since there are so many sets around our house - and the creative possibilities are endless. The first time MC saw me disassemble a LEGO house she was concerned. “Mom you broke it!” I reassured her I had not broken the house, but just taken the pieces apart, so I could built a new, different house. I wish I could have taken a picture of her reaction. A mix of awe and glee.

Because MC is still a bit on the young side when it comes to LEGOs (only 3!), she really doesn’t mind if I build things and simply present them to her once they are ready. “Build me a prison!” “Build me an orange house!” “Build me a hospital!” And I happily oblige. MC has a large collection of DUPLOs but isn’t interested in them anymore. All she wants is to play with my LEGO sets and have me build things for her, which delights me - and you would understand too, if you were a LEGO aficionada who had to set them aside for a couple of years in favor of DUPLOs (LEGOs were a choking hazard when she was a baby, so I had put them in storage).

Now, with Brickit, I can potentially build more sophisticated objects with the LEGO pieces we have… while keeping my child screen-free. I could follow build instructions on my iPad and get to work when MC is asleep or at school. So, I could still be totally offline when I’m with her. Win/win!

I feel this case is the perfect marriage between screen-free play and AI.

Thursday February 15: AI Promises vs. Reality

I have been so excited about the potential for Brickit’s machine learning to step up my LEGO creations and make me use pieces I have in ways I could not have imagined. I was ALL IN. Until I tried it, that is.

This morning I carefully spilled the contents of my LEGO drawers on the floor - organized by color - and turned the pieces on their side, flattening them out and making them easier to recognize by Brickit’s ML system. We’ve been visiting my parents in Italy and even if my collection here is smaller (than the one in Paris) I have so many pieces that this process took about half an hour.

A photo showing my LEGO pieces carefully spread out on the floor, assorted by color
A photo showing my LEGO pieces carefully spread out on the floor, assorted by color

I was SO EXCITED when it came time to open the Brickit app and scan the bricks on the floor. I set to record the screen so I could rewatch the process.

The scanning was impressively fast. The pieces found were 805 (which felt a bit on the low side because I could have sworn there were a lot more).

Brickit announced it had found 473 ideas of characters, buildings, vehicles, and other things to create with the pieces I had.

MC loves it when I build homes for her characters, so I was eager to see what kind of buildings Brickit suggested. I had carefully put aside doors and windows, as well as baseplates that could be used as floors. I couldn’t wait to see which ideas appeared in the buildings section.

A screenshot of Brickit's app, showing how many pieces it recognized after the scan and listing the number of ideas (473) for creations

These are the most sophisticated “buildings” it came up with:

A screenshot from Brickit, showing a "country house"
A screenshot from Brickit, showing a "Town Plan" (whatever that means)

For those of you who are not LEGO enthusiasts, well, these are not homes; you can’t even put characters in them. They are miniature representations of homes that you could use for decoration purposes but not to play. All the ideas under buildings were miniature houses that required about 20-50 pieces. Nothing in comparison to the buildings I typically make - with my own imagination - for MC.

Saying that this was a letdown is an understatement. I wanted this to work so badly. But this has provided a really powerful lesson about the ways we bow down to the promises of artificial intelligence… automatically thinking that it must be far superior to human intellect and a real person’s imagination. I can’t believe I fell for it - I truly feel like a fool. Me of all people, with all the research I have been doing about the false promises of tech giants… and a project encouraging people to appreciate the real world over the digital realm.

Then a light bulb went off. The idea for a little experiment.

Woman vs. Artificial Intelligence: the LEGO Challenge

During MC’s nap time I would build a house – a more sophisticated house than the one proposed by Brickit’s machine learning system.

Drum roll:

Brickit’s house:

Brickit's "Country House"

And here is my creation:

When MC woke up from her nap I told her: “I’ve built you a new LEGO house while you were asleep.” She was so excited. As soon as she saw it, she said: “Mom, you built me a hotel!” So, a hotel it is.

The hotel could have been cuter but I had used up all the pieces to make cool furniture earlier in the week, when I renovated a 1980s LEGO town house. At my parents' home in Italy I am missing tons of accessories and special pieces that could really liven up a house.

A photo showing a recent LEGO build I did - the remodeling of a 1980s Town House set

Friday Feb 16: Final Thoughts

I am actually RELIEVED that the ideas proposed by Brickit pale in comparison to what I could build using my imagination. I have several LEGO Expert sets but the real fun comes from playing with the LEGOs I have (pieces that come from Classic Brick Boxes) that don't have instructions. Open-ended play feels so much more fun and relaxing than following something step-by-step.

I have since deleted Brickit from my phone – I’m sure it can be useful and fun for casual LEGO players… but for this LEGO enthusiast the technology isn’t quite there yet to suggest beautiful, sophisticated creations.

I look forward to playing with LEGOs the usual way - offline, away from screens. There is something truly calming and fun about it that is hard to put into words.

And what about you? Have you ever been let down by the promises of artificial intelligence and machine learning?

Thanks for being here,


If you'd like to support my work, you could rent or buy my documentary The Illusionists.

Watch the trailer: