Nadya Peek began tinkering with machines out of stubbornness.
As an undergraduate, when she collaborated with artists on their installations, she often ran into limitations with the tools and equipment they were using. Rather than accept her fate, she hacked the machines until they finally did what she wanted. It got her thinking: why couldn’t machines be more flexible? What if instead of changing your idea to fit the tools, you could change the tools to fit your idea? Thus began her quest to create application-specific machines that could help anyone do almost anything.
Peek is now an assistant professor at the University of Washington, where she dedicates herself to this vision. She designs modular components—motors, mechanical arms, and material cutters—that can be assembled every which way and programmed with a little bit of code to carry out tasks from the frivolous to the scientific. When she teaches people to use her components, she delights in their creativity: they’ve made T-shirt-designing machines and cocktail-mixing machines, 3D printers, and chemistry pipetting machines. The machines are often no larger than a desktop and can be broken down and reassembled for new tasks once they’ve outlived their original use.
Peek tries to make her tools as low-cost and accessible as possible: some use only cardboard for their frames, and the designs are available to download. Her machines have been used by students, hackers, and even architects.
Peek’s goal is to give anyone with an idea the means to translate it into physical reality. She notes that computers were originally designed to carry out specific tasks, but evolved to be more general-purpose. She thinks machines that automate physical tasks should be no different. “I ultimately really would like to see automation as ... just another thing that you can use for creative problem solving,” she says.