Handwriting Robots Are Sending Snail Mail

As a kid, you might remember taking a whole fistful of markers or crayons, gently lining them all up for maximum contact, mashing them into the paper, and marveling at the colorful multitude of lines. It seemed like an easy way to write many times more things with less effort. While not quite the same idea but in a similar vein, [Aaron Francis] shared an experience of creating handwriting robots to write thousands of letters.

Why did [Aaron] need to write thousands of letters? Direct mailing, of course! If you were sending someone a letter, if it looked handwritten they’re much more likely to open it. What better way to make it look handwritten than to use a pen rather than a printer? They started off with Axidraw, a simple plotter made by EMSL. Old laptops controlled a few plotters and they started to make progress. As with most things, scale became tricky. Adding more plotters just means more paper to replace and machines to restart. An automated system of replacing paper is fiendishly difficult so they went for a batching system. A sheet of plywood that can hold dozens of sheets of paper became the basis of a new mega-plotter. 3D printers and laser cutters helped make adapters and homing teeth. A Raspberry Pi replaced the old laptops and they scaled up to a few machines.

All in all, a pretty impressive build. If you’re looking to dip your toes into the plotting water, this pen plotter is about as simple as you can get.

40 thoughts on “Handwriting Robots Are Sending Snail Mail

  1. The world does not need more spam / spammers. That they are killing trees to send their spam makes it even worse.

    Perhaps they can pivot to something more useful, like a service that provides “hand written” wedding/birthday/etc. invitations?

    1. It is effective. I got a lot of these, and the first few I opened not knowing it was spam. Now I recognize the hand writing, I’ll still open it just in case, but now I expect it to be spam.

      Another interesting tell, most of the robowriter spam I get is supposedly coming from some where local to me, usually it’s a letter supposedly from a local offering to buy my house or provide some service. However, the robowriter spam letters have postmarks from many states away….

  2. Machine generation of bounded handwriting variation is a very difficult problem to tackle, so I read [Aaron’s] Twitter posts with interest to see how he handled the problem. All I found is the excerpt quoted below which in my opinion is lacking in sufficient detail. [Aaron] said, “I got all the data in SVG and then added random variations to each letter.” “Random” variations look, well, random, which is very easy to discern. There must be more to it. I would ask [Aaron] for more information on Twitter, but I can’t. I will never post on a social networking platform that censors Free Speech for political purposes.

    Quoting [Aaron Francis]: “Our first year we wrote the same note on every letter, because generating handwriting is tough. On and off over the next year (2018), I played with handwriting generation. I took the simplest route. I captured an employee’s handwriting using a tablet! I had her write each letter ~15 times. I got all the data in SVG and then added random variations to each letter. I had a script that would ingest a CSV and generate hundreds of SVG files.”

    1. Is there any other end? *twirls mustache*

      Seriously tho, using e.g. an inferometer, some kind of depth measurement to detect lack of human like pressure differences of the pen stroke on the paper could defeat this… Up until they sort out a Z axis modulation. Then it is over to the neural net devs to Turing test the written word. With my cursive skills, I expect to be classified as a half eaten Mars bar.

  3. Nobody writes with center justified text, that’s a dead giveaway. Not for a standard form business letter. Worse to have to read a whole long message in that format. As said above stick to personal invitations.

    1. I came here just to see if someone had made this comment.

      There’s backstory. In the 1960’s a CalTech student who had access to a printer far before normal people did, realized he could print out entries to a sweepstakes and could inexpensively submit 60% of the total entries.
      That’s why for many years sweepstakes entries specified that the entries had to be hand-written, and why Lazlo had the steam tunnels full of handwriting robots, to yet again tweak the contest rules.

  4. I think this is getting wide spread, I got a ‘hand’ written spam note the other day – clearly not a printer – and I agree tat the first response people have to a hand written note is to read it..

    Given it’s now probably spam, I think we will all get used to not reading it.

    1. Are you *positive* it wasn’t a printer? I’ve received a few pieces over the years that looked REALLY good (like handwritten), but upon very close inspection (because I was incredulous), it turned out to be some sort of printer. :-)

    2. Pretty much, if a letter comes to me with an unrecognizable return address, “hand written” or not, it goes straight into the recycle bin, unopened. Buying my house 4 years ago and refinancing it earlier this year led to a deluge, and that’s with all the opting-out of selling my information.

  5. Sheet feeding is a fairly solved problem – an old printer should have the mechanism you need.

    But please don’t spam, and especially not physically where it’s much harder to filter out. If I got one of these, I’d marvel at the technology, and then add your company to my “do not purchase from” list.

  6. I thought this was an urban myth / out-of-control AI cautionary speculative fan fiction that ended with a paperclip problem / gray goo type of finale.

    (Having reread the sentence I just wrote at least half a dozen times, I feel compelled to reassure you that I am not AI.)

  7. There’s no need to add variations to the “hand written” notes.

    Each person receives only one, so no one has anything to compare it to – no one can possibly know that the note they got is identical to the other 5 zillion that were sent. Just make ’em all the same. Better yet, don’t make ’em at all. Snail mail spam is an even larger waste of resources than email spam.

    1. One wonders if the writing variations are used within a single letter. Since people do not write exactly the same way continuously, a word or character can be slightly different each time it is written in the letter.

      1. A friend made some money off a font he designed in the late 1980’s that had slight variations in letters, so there were a dozen different versions of each letter and the program would cycle through them.

    2. I’m starting to recognize the robowrite’s handing writing. Although I still open to make sure (and see which scam I’m being target with), by from the “hand” writing I know I’m dealing with spam.

      Changing the hand writing would help evade my build in detector. I feel the worst thing that could happen is this develops to the point where they could send you a letter with the writing style of a family member…

  8. I don’t recall the name, but the US Congress members had a machine that “hand signed” letters to constituents. A Google search turns up “Autopen” as a 2D plotter for the purpose; the one I saw used a metal plate with a follower mechanism. Apparently they are used to produce memorabilia – so that signed item from a sports figure may have never been near that person.

  9. IIRC, If you personalize a “bulk mail” letter, it is technically now first class and ineligible for the presort bulk mail rate.

    That gets enforced (or more likely not) by the word accepting post office’s Postmaster; and as pickled up as these folks usually are they no longer have time to care about that kind of thing, so I’d guess you’ve got a good chance of getting away with it.

    I had a Postmaster threaten to decertify an 8,000 item mailing of a monthly newsletter run ‘cuz they found a “hi $name!” handwritten note on the cover of one that had happened to come out on top of a bundle. We broke *that* bundle and mailed them first class to appease them.

  10. I don’t like junk mail any more than the rest of you but spam (advertising) is a fact of life and has been for probably thousands of years. And if you have a product or service you are selling, you need advertising (spam) to let people know about it. Word-of-mouth only goes so far. As for the effectiveness of it, any smart businessman is going to look at Return-On-Investment and if the spamvertising does not bring in more revenue than it costs, they will stop doing it.
    For this guy, I can think of quite a number of ways to scale it up while increasing efficiency and lowering costs considerably. But I don’t want to encourage more of it!

    1. Everybody else would rather have Google and Facebook track everything about you and sell targeted advertising to the spammer. I guess they prefer this type of overwatch and control.

  11. Well, unlike others, I see this as positive. Receiving this spam ( if it really is spam, maybe it is something different ) can provide a free source of scrap paper, for notes, sketches, or lighting the barbecue grill.

    Also, sendind physical spam like this cost the spammers money, so it is always a plus.

    There is correct advertising, and then there is spamming.

    And before someone says the cost of mailing will cause increase on the prices of the products : if someone has to charge more because they are hiring costlier spammers, well, then they will sell less, and they also deserve it for using spammers.

    1. No, it’s really spam. Two flavors I’ve been getting:

      1) A supposed local real estate person wanting to see if I’ll sell my house to them (or they could sell me house for me). Ironically, and the postmark is usually from a completely different state letting me know they are not really local…

      2) A supposed service (like window replacement, insurance, etc.) that’s “in your area” sending me a hand written note giving me a special deal.

      For 2), I also get a lot of printed hand writing letter/quotes, as well as robowriter/pen material. But you can tell them a part.

      I used to think that maybe somebody took the time to hand write them, but after a couple I noticed the hand writing is way too similar.

      The paper they send isn’t really useful, very sad use of natural resources….

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