|Art and Robotics
If there's one thing I've learned from a life full of robotics, it's that machines want to make music and art. This may not seem obvious to everyone, but spend most of your adult life in rooms humming with motors and blinking with LEDs and it becomes quite clear. When I build a machine that makes music, the design-driving questions are "If I were a robot, how would I WANT to make music?" and "What kind of music would I like to play?". Certainly the methodologies would be different than those of a human player, with a different set of strengths and limitations.
With that in mind, in 2004 composer Christine Southworth and I founded Ensemble Robot, with the help of a grant from LEF. The goal of the project is to create an orchestra of robotic instruments and produce a repertoire for innovative performances for human players and robots. The group invents and builds the machines, as well as designs and implements unique collaborations and music.
In 2005 we did a piece in the Hall of Electricity for Van de Graaff Generator, Tesla Coil, Robots, and human players. I played the high voltage machines with a laser theremin I built for my Master's thesis called the Termenova; Christine (who conceived of and composed the piece) sang inside the cage while I threw million volt lightening bolts in her direction. It was a fantastic performance with about 500 people in attendance.
We also participated in the Boston Cyberarts Festival; we created an interactive music-evolution installation piece as well as a performance for electronic gamelan, robotic instruments, and modern dance. The evolution piece encouraged users to play music on a keyboard. The heliphon (a xylophone based instrument in the shape of a double helix) learned from the player, then evolved and elaborated upon the music using algorithms (written by Giles Hall) that can distinguish such features as key, meter, and complexity. Ensemble Robot continues to make interesting and unique pieces for machine and man collaborations.
If I were a machine, I would paint with light on a CCD canvas.
A few years ago, Richard Watson and I built some miniature robots based on the concepts of Valentino Braitenberg, as espoused in his book "Vehicles: Experiements in Synthetic Psychology". Braitenberg's proposal was to build robots with very little purposeful intelligence and limited or no algorithms, with actuation mapped to simple sensor inputs. The resulting actions of the robots appear to an observer as complex behaviors, such as fear, aggression, and love.
These long exposures show a robot that "desires" to move toward the beacon until it gets too close; it then flees quickly. Immediately the desire for the beacon reappears, with the light painting a picture of the eternally repeating love fear pattern.
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