The shortage has been traced by tech reporters to Bird Bot and his online identity. But they didn’t make it all the way to his parents’ basement in Alexandria, Va.
Bird Bot is 16. And his mom had to wake him up early for this interview.
“Usually I sleep until about noon,” said Bird Bot, who is actually Nate, a junior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. He asked me not to use his last name; there are some folks angry at him right now.
“Some people were calling me a scalper,” Nate said. “It’s just basic supply and demand.”
What he created isn’t illegal. Only bots that buy tickets for scalpers were targeted in a 2016 Better Online Ticket Sales, or BOTS, Act that tried to eliminate that kind of digital manipulation in the marketplace.
Bots are really popular in the sneaker world, which is where Nate learned to use and tweak these kinds of tools. His biggest score was a purchase of eight pairs of Adidas Yeezys for their retail price (around $200), which he resold for between $500 and $600 each.
Nate created Bird Bot for his friends, who were having a hard time getting the popular Switch, a handheld game console that is selling out thanks to worldwide quarantine demand. (I found mine the easy way, swiping my son’s Switch to support my “Animal Crossing” addiction.)
But not all households allow for a video Anschluss like the one I executed, so when Nate’s friend, nicknamed “Bird” (he doesn’t know why), challenged him to create a bot to help them all buy Switches when they became available, he took him up on the challenge.
“It took me a few days; it was pretty quick. I had a lot of free time,” Nate said.
He used it to buy one Switch, to make sure it worked, and gave that Switch to one of his friends (not Bird.)
“Then I put it on GitHub,” the popular forum for software developers to share their creations. “I tweeted it out, got a bunch of likes and retweets, made a Discord group for it,” Nate said.
Because he didn’t want to resell the Nintendos and he’s not really a gamer — remember, he’s a sneakerhead who has a side hustle arbitraging the latest kicks — he released the tool, for free, in the digital world.
He was proud of the code. It’s clean and reliable, and he hoped other software people would geek out on the friendly user interface, something that the coding language he used for it, Python, is not known for.
And, sure enough, he got thumbs-up from some big-time software engineers. If you don’t speak this language (I struggle), it’s the equivalent of Bruno Mars liking the YouTube video of your kid singing in the kitchen.
“Nate’s really excited that a software engineer from Google ‘starred’ his autobot on GitBook,” his mom told me. “That has motivated him more to study computer science than any AP class could.”
Nate says he doesn’t think any of his computer science teachers know he’s Bird Bot. And he’s struggling with how something like this might be used on a résumé. He’s a junior and wants to go to a university in Virginia to study computer science.
“It’s a pretty hard project to follow,” he said. “I’ve been working on other projects, but this one was a home run.”
The coding side of this was all good, sure.
But this story doesn’t end there.
He’s facing — at an early age — the ethical dilemma of the misuse of one’s own creation.
Sure, Nate’s bot isn’t on the scale of Alfred Bernhard Nobel’s invention of dynamite. But his $1,000 donation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation — gathered from developers who used the bot — is his small version of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“He wasn’t really prepared for how this took off,” his mom said. “He’s been blamed for causing hoarding of the Switches. He’s gotten angry messages, requests for interviews — and someone even tried to steal his code and pass it off as his own.”
They sat him down for a talk.
“My husband and I have helped him understand that there are valid complaints to be made,” she said. “His actions have had consequences that he hadn’t thought about, sure. In some cases, you could alter the bot and snatch up toilet paper with it. It’s true that resellers are selling the devices at a huge markup.”
Nate believes the Switch hoarders — like that hand sanitizer hoarder who couldn’t sell his amoral investment — are going to be in risky territory soon when Nintendo’s production will catch up to demand.
What he really hopes to do — and why he agreed to tell me his story — is to inspire other kids to do something creative during quarantine.
“The Internet is a great resource, try and think of something that hasn’t been done before, think of something that others can learn from,” he said. “The biggest takeaway from this is that you can create something really cool at home, on your own.”
Hey, kids? Seriously. Can you make one of these for toilet paper?
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