Robots are designed to meet particular objectives – and typically, to pass a test that is applied is to assess whether the robot achieves a particular outcome. For example one of the machines that teenagers meet during our events on campus is ‘Agnes’. Agnes is a humanoid robot with a slim female shape. ‘She’ sits on a chair and knits. Her eyes move to line up with the movements of her hands and her head moves in time with her knitting. Inside Agnes, hidden from view, there are motors that have been repurposed from things such as inkjet printers and several microcontroller chips that coordinate everything. Each motor moves (though a series of gears) one of Agnes’ joints in a single plane. The joints feed back their exact positions to the controllers using various methods including potentiometers, optical and magnetic encoders, this enables Agnes to knit accurately by keeping track of the position, speed and direction of movement of her hands. Her left hand can move in two planes to wrap the yarn around each peg of the knitting loom. Her right hand holds the hook and can also move in two planes as well as rotate the hook to pick up the yarn. She has other motors for animatronic motions, not connected directly with the knitting. Although Agnes has legs, they are plastic and do not move. Agnes wears sensible shoes. Agnes was designed with two objectives in mind. To look human and to knit. When teenagers interact with Andy Noyes, the inventor, they are prone to ask what else Agnes can do and what else Agnes might do in future with more development. Among the suggestions students offer are can talk, sing, walk, cook or even drive a car. Because Agnes is sitting in the chair with hands stretched out her pose resembles the position of someone driving. To an engineer, however, designing a robot that can drive a car is a completely different proposition from designing a robot that looks like a women and can knit. So given the plethora of occupations that Agnes could have taken on, why knitting? Her inventor Andy Noyes explains:
“I wanted to build a robot that was humanoid but that actually has a task to occupy itself with (like a machine) rather than just mimic a person in appearance. I chose knitting because it is an activity that can be very absorbing for a human to do, so the robot appears to be naturally focused on what it is doing, and also because it is quite a challenge to make a machine knit this way as it requires a high level of dexterity. I had no prior experience of knitting myself (and had to actually learn to knit to understand the challenges involved). Agnes is not really pragmatic, more of an art project. It would be far easier to build a dedicated knitting machine that was not humanoid.”
What about the reaction Andy hoped to prompt in people approaching Agnes? He says, “I wasn’t really looking to prompt reactions, but find it interesting the reactions people have. I expected people to think she was a human from a distance, but then as they got closer they could see clearly it was a machine. Agnes’ exterior appearance was one of the last things I completed, once she had a face and body Agnes became a ‘she’ rather than an ‘it’. It’s interesting that people seeing Agnes for the first time almost always refer to her as ‘she’”.
Are children’s questions different to adults? “Yes, children’s imagination is a lot less restricted and they will ask things such as: Can she see, hear, walk or talk? Adults will ask more technical but less imaginative questions such as: Can she knit different stitches? How does she change colours? Can she knit other garments?”
Finally, why is Agnes called Agnes? “It stands for ‘Automated Generic Neck Embellishment Synthesiser.’ I always planned to make it an acronym, but chose the name first and thought I could invent an acronym to fit later. However this one was put forward by somebody on hackaday.com and was much better than any of mine! Agnes was also my grandmother’s name which seemed fitting as surely all grandmothers knit? I originally planned to make Agnes appear elderly, but thought it might be too creepy!”
More about Andy Noyes:
Andy says he is particularly interested in the idea of specialists and interdisciplinary questions – and in the issue of whether education provides enough support and provision to help students to consider questions that don’t fit in a single discipline. “I studied physics to degree level but then decided I wanted to do something less theoretical and more ‘hands on’. I’d always been interested in electronics and building things as a child. I’ve also always liked working with wood and have worked in forestry, as a wood turner and cabinet maker, graphic designer and sign maker. In recent years I’ve become more interested in building machines, some of which are functional and some artistic.”