Thursday, December 1, 2022

How choreography can help robots live

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Consider this scene from the 2014 film, Ex Machina: A young nerd, Caleb, is in a dark room with a scantily clad female bot, Kyoko. Nathan, a brilliant robotic, stumbles drunk and abruptly tells Caleb to dance with the Kyoko-bot. To get things going, Nathan hits a wall panel and the lights in the room suddenly turn an ominous red, as Oliver Cheatham’s disco classic “Get Down Saturday Night” begins to play. Kyoko – who appears to have already done so – begins to dance without a word, and Nathan joins his robotic creation in an intricately choreographed pelvic thrust piece. The scene suggests that Nathan imbued his robot creation with disco features, but how did he choreograph the dance on Kyoko, and why?

Ex Machina may not answer these questions, but the scene evokes an emerging field of robotics research: choreography. By definition, choreography is the making of decisions about how bodies move in space and time. In the dancer’s sense, to choreograph is to articulate patterns of movement for a given context, generally optimizing expressiveness rather than utility. Listening to the choreographies of the world is being aware of how people move and interact in complex and technologically charged environments. Choreographers (i.e. roboticists who work in a choreographic fashion) believe that the incorporation of dancing gestures into machinic behaviors will make robots less like industrial artifacts, but rather more alive, more empathetic, and more attentive. Such an interdisciplinary intervention could facilitate the presence and work of robots – which is no small feat given their proliferation in consumer, medical and military contexts.

If the concern for the movement of bodies is at the heart of dance and robotics, historically, the disciplines have rarely overlapped. On the one hand, the western dance tradition is known to maintain a generally anti-intellectual tradition that poses great challenges to those interested in interdisciplinary research. George Balanchine, the acclaimed founder of the New York City Ballet, told his dancers, “Don’t think, honey, do. As a result of this kind of culture, the stereotype of dancers as servile bodies better seen than heard has unfortunately calcified a long time ago. Meanwhile, the field of computing – and robotics by extension – presents comparable, albeit distinct, body problems. As sociologists Simone browne, Benjamin dress and others have demonstrated, there is a long history of emerging technologies that make human bodies mere objects of surveillance and speculation. The result has been the perpetuation of racist and pseudoscientific practices such as phrenology, mood reading software, and AIs that claim to know if you are gay by the way your face looks. The body is a problem for computer scientists; and the overwhelming response from the field has been technical “solutions” that seek to read bodies without meaningful feedback from their owners. That is, an insistence that the bodies be seen, but not heard.

Despite the historical divide, it may not be a stretch to regard roboticists as specialist choreographers and to think that the integration of choreography and robotics could benefit both fields. Usually the movement of robots is not studied for meaning and intentionality as it is for dancers, but roboticists and choreographers are concerned with the same basic concerns: articulation, extension, strength, form. , effort, effort and power. “Roboticists and choreographers aim to do the same thing: understand and convey subtle choices of movement in a given context,” writes Amy Laviers, a certified motion analyst and founder of the Robotics, Automation and Dance Laboratory (RAD) in a recent article funded by the National Science Foundation. When roboticists work choreographically to determine robot behaviors, they make decisions about how human and inhuman bodies expressively move within the intimate context of each other. This is distinct from the utilitarian parameters that tend to govern most robotics research, where optimization reigns supreme (is the robot doing its job?), And what the movement of a device means or makes people feel. someone is of no apparent consequence.

Madeline Gannon, founder of the research studio AtonAton, leads the field in its exploration of the expressiveness of robots. Its installation commissioned by the World Economic Forum, hands, illustrates the possibilities of choreography both through its brilliant choreographic consideration and its feats of innovative mechanical engineering. The room consists of 10 robot arms displayed behind a transparent panel, each austere and brilliantly lit. The arms are reminiscent of the conception of the production of techno-dystopian films like Ghost in the Shell. These robot arms are designed to do repetitive work and are usually deployed for utility issues such as car chassis painting. Yet when hands is activated, its robot arms do not embody any of the expected and repetitive rhythms of the assembly line, but rather seem alive, each moving individually to interact animatedly with its surroundings. Depth sensors installed at the base of the robot’s platform track the movement of human observers in space, measure and respond to distances iteratively. This tracking data is distributed across the entire robotic system, functioning as a shared view for all robots. When passers-by get close enough to an arm of the robot, it “looks” more closely by tilting its “head” in the direction of the stimuli, then moves closer to engage. These simple and subtle gestures have been used by puppeteers for millennia to imbue objects with animus. Here it has the cumulative effect of rendering hands seem curious and very alive. These tiny choreographies give the appearance of personality and intelligence. They are the functional difference between a random row of industrial robots and the coordinated movements of intelligent packet behavior.


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