TED Talk: Robots with “soul”
I’ve recently posted about the Z-Machines robot band, which follows in the footsteps of Compressorhead. The critical question is always raised: can these robot musicians really engage their audience the way a human performer does?
One researcher who has spent years studying that very question is Guy Hoffman. In addition to his robotics chops, Hoffman is also an accomplished animator and jazz musician. He’s been working for years to make robots that people will relate to at an emotional level, in contexts ranging from musical improv to factory work. He’s found that not with the right sensors and programming, not only is a robot more likeable and fun, but it can work more productively, too.
The robots featured in this talk include a robotic desk lamp named AUR, inspired by the famous Luxo Jr. animated lamp character from Pixar. Also, at the end of the talk, Hoffman presents a robotic speaker that not only plays your tunes, but appears to enjoy them too as it taps its toe and bobs its head to the beat; this is Travis (aka Shimi). This isn’t entirely new — it must owe homage to the famous Keepon (now a consumer product) — but it’s well done.
But the most impressive robot of the bunch is Shimon, a four-armed marimba player that not only jams with a live musician, but uses a non-anthromorphic yet very expressive head to communicate through body language. The result is both effective and terribly engaging.
I think it’s clear that robots can engage an audience, with or without music — if they’re designed and programmed properly for the job. To do this effectively goes beyond just being cute: it requires perceiving the people in the room, using body language effectively, reacting quickly, and occasionally making mistakes. As Hoffman concludes, “maybe… robots that are a little less than perfect are just perfect for us.”