• Dr. Timothy Smith

What's Amazing About Dancing Robots

Photo Source: Youtube

To usher in 2021 and provide an entertaining and optimistic welcome to the new year, Boston Dynamics released a video of some of their remarkable robots dancing to the 1962 song "Do You Love Me" performed by The Contours on Motown's Gordy Records. In the video below, you see solo and ensemble dancing by the humanoid robot called Atlas, a four-legged robot named Spot, and Handle, which resembles a flightless bird with wheels for feet. The video shows these robots dancing to music that choreographers, engineers, and computer scientists helped them learn to do.

With pervasive, impressive special effects in movies and TV, images of robots moving through the world and performing tasks as simple as walking or as complex as running, jumping, and climbing stairs appear possible, even expected. However, the development of agile humanoid and animal-like robots that can move and walk around like this represents an enormous breakthrough in engineering and computer science. Without advances in artificial intelligence, complex sensors, and machinery, such robots could never have worked.

In an article for IEEE titled "How Boston Dynamics Taught Its Robots to Dance," Evan Ackerman describes the process of training a robot in the art of dance. The process, in some way, resembles teaching people to dance expressively through choreography. For people, the choreographer designs the dance based on the dancers' ability, followed by intense repetition to learn the moves. "One of the challenges, and probably the core challenge for Atlas, in particular, was adjusting human dance moves so that they could be performed on the robot. To do that, we used simulation to rapidly iterate through movement concepts while soliciting feedback from the choreographer to reach behaviors that Atlas had the strength and speed to execute." (Spectrum IEEE) Through software tools and artificial intelligence, the robot can very rapidly learn through simulation to respond to music. In other words, the robots learned through dancing over and over again as a person does. In other words, like in dance class, the robot learns not by following a map of all the steps on the ground but through repetition and coaching from the instructor.

Based in Waltham, MA, Boston Dynamics builds and sells some of the world's most advanced commercial robots capable of moving and acting autonomously in various environments. For example, Spot, the four-legged robot, can walk around unstructured, hazardous sites equipped with up to 14 pounds of sensors such as cameras, 3D laser imagers, and infrared sensors to collect data safely for human inspectors working safely from afar. (bostondynamics.com/spot) Spot can climb stairs on command and does not need a human to operate it. To put this fantastic achievement in perspective, ten years ago, getting a humanoid robot hooked up via cables to offboard computers to simply climb a set of stairs represented a remarkable achievement. Today, the demonstration of untethered robots performing dance moves underscores a remarkable achievement in engineering. The robots may not dance with artistic expression, but the demonstration opens the door to the extraordinary potential of robots working among us and even living among us.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.