There are a lot of things science fiction has told us about robots. They can serve us, they can clean up after us, and of course they can and probably will kill us. But can a robot stir our deepest emotions? Can a robot be a vehicle for great art? Can a robot, for instance, dance?
Yes, indeed! comes the resounding answer from Sweden this week. A robot can dance, and not just one of those cutesy numbers we’ve seen in the past with Aibo dogs. A team at the Sweden’s Mälardalen University has made a robotic swan whose graceful and dramatic movements, choreographed to music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, have stirred onlookers to tears, they say. The dancing roboswan will have its proper debut tomorrow at a book fair in Gothenburg.
The idea for the dancing swan came from Lars Asplund, a robotics professor at Mälardalen, and Kerstin Gauffin, a colleague in its theater department. Gauffin then got in touch with a professional choreographer named Åsa Unander-Scharin. Unander-Scharin was an apt choice; she had actually programmed three robots to dance before, and had written a dissertation related to the topic called “Human Mechanics and Soulful Machines.”
But while Unander-Scharin’s previous work required her to code the dance, the roboswan allowed an intriguing innovation. While Tchaikovsky’s music played, Unander-Scharin was able to move the swan’s articulated body parts; the swan recorded these motions all the while. Having only two hands, Unander-Scharin could of course only record one element of the dance at a time. “First I recorded the neck and beak movements, and when that was finished, the swan was performing the neck movements while I was recording wing movements,” and so on, she tells Fast Company, layering dance elements like a recording artist lays down tracks. The result is as much sculpture and puppetry as dance, and allows for a more organic connection between human and machine than writing lines of code.
Unander-Scharin and Asplund envision a future where robots might dance along with humans and perhaps even be indistinguishable from them. “You’ve heard of the Turing test?” asks Asplund. “Maybe we can have a Nureyev test.”
Asplund adds that he thinks the emotions that robots provoke in humans have yet to be fully explored, citing the example of people who buy a second Roomba vacuuming robot so that their first one doesn’t get “lonely.” Did his roboswan’s exalted dance ever stir him to tears, then? “I’ve been working with robots for too long,” he says. “I’m touched, but I don’t get tears in my eyes.”