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A Father and His 7-Year-Old Daughter Built an Awesome Robot That Can Beat Simon

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
June 10, 2014

The game Simon can be difficult for anyone, much less a kid who’s just starting elementary school. So when engineer Ben North and his 7-year-old daughter first started playing the classic electronic memory puzzler last spring, it’s not surprising that things got off to a frustrating start. 

"We were … not doing especially well," North wrote in an email to Yahoo Tech.

But North and his daughter didn’t quit or throw the game across the room in a rage like, um, some of us might have. Instead, the father-daughter duo set out to build an intelligent robot that could defeat the thing for them. 

"I said [to my daughter], ‘I bet you could make a robot to do this,’" North told me. "My daughter was excited by this idea, and we do often make and experiment with things, so we decided we’d give it a go."

A year later, they’ve succeeded: The Norths created a system that can react to the flashing lights on a game of Simon and beat the entire thing, all the way to the end, without any human input. The father and his daughter dominated Simon.

The home-built robot uses a melange of parts both prosaic and geeky. The physical robot is like a monster built from spare parts in a kitchen: The base on which the game rests consists of a chopping board laid on top of four overturned yogurt cups. The “fingers” that touch the Simon lights are made from angled Legos and are attached to rubber bands that return them to a starting position. 

The brains of the robot, meanwhile, are more sophisticated. Light sensors attached to copper wires tell the fingers which buttons to mash. An Arduino board — a cheap and simple microcontroller often used in home computing experiments — gives the robot life and intelligence. Store-bought Servo motors move the robot where it needs to go.

Once the design of the robot was finished, North and his daughter wrote a simple computer program that told all of those parts what to do. And, voila! That’s how you erect a robot that can vanquish the evil Simon.

When he’s not Frankensteining together memory game-beating robots with his kids, North is a quantitative researcher at a finance firm in Dublin, Ireland. He recently scaled down his hours to help raise his four children. The Simon robot is one of the fruits of that move. North detailed the project on his blog, as well as in several YouTube videos. The videos, first noticed by the tech site Hackaday, show a clever, hacked-together bot mastering the classic memory game, as well as an unedited long shot of the robot conquering Simon, without any cuts. 

Now, it would be one thing if a grown man constructed a Simon-beating bot. What makes this machine special, however, is that North built it — really built it! — with his little girl. And though some Internet commenters have been a little nasty (imagine!), suggesting that North did all the work while his daughter wandered away, the handy father assured Yahoo Tech that his kid was involved the whole way through. 

"My daughter was very involved with all stages of the project," North said. "Mechanical design, building the Lego fingers (with help from my other three kids), marking holes, drilling holes, doing up screws, sawing,
wire-cutting, wire-stripping, soldering. She did at least half of
most of those jobs, with help and supervision (CLOSE supervision for
the soldering!).”

"She stuck with it until we’d succeeded,” North said. “I’m proud of her for that.”

North advises parents who want to embark on similar projects to break down the project into manageable chunks, and to stretch out the work over a long period of time so that your child does not expend all her enthusiasm in the first day. 

As for what’s next for the enterprising dad-and-daughter duo, North says they haven’t settled on a project. One option is building new shelves for his daughter’s bedroom; the other is a little more technical, and proves that a simple desire to beat Simon might have engendered a lifetime of scientific curiosity and experimentation –– for both Norths.

"She keeps asking 'but how do transistors REALLY work?'” the father concluded. “I've got some reading ahead of me!”