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Jun. 07, 2011

Why Robots Should Dance

by Katherine

Singing, dancing robots range from the charming to the inept to the creepy to the inexplicable. They’re all fun to watch. But, I’ve always wondered: what’s the fascination? Why do humans want robots to dance? And what are we trying to learn from building them?

Drexel University Engineering professor (and MIT Media Lab alum) Youngmoo Kim and graduate students Alyssa Batula and David Grunberg have been working on a dancing, piano-playing robot of their own. I called up Dr. Kim to ask him why. “It’s fun to do,” he said, “there’s a very tangible result when you get a robot to play a piano piece or to dance. But my long-term research is to look at these questions of creative expression that we find difficult to analyze.”

Dr. Kim’s “Hubo” robot does something that few other robots can do — listen to the music and coordinate moves based on the waveforms it hears. (Most dancing robots are pre-programmed and synced up with a music track.) Here’s “Hubo” adjusting to changes in tempo:


Dr. Kim hopes that this kind of research will eventually lead to a robot capable of performing in an ensemble, alongside humans – reacting to changes in the music and adapting as the piece unfolds.

But I wondered, do we lose something when we try to study and systematize ephemeral art forms like dance or music? When a robot creates art, does that art lose some of its meaning? Dr. Kim says no: “there’s so much we don’t understand about music. I don’t ascribe to the notion that understanding more about it is somehow going to dehumanize it.”

Dr. Kim graciously answered many such Luddite questions about robots and art a few weeks ago. The abbreviated transcript of our phone conversation follows. Read more

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About Katherine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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