Friday, September 2, 2011

Of Mice and Machine-Men: A Lesson in Robot Dance

by Sara N.

Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel H. Wilson's book Robopocalypse and Maximilian from The Black Hole, puny humans around the globe are primed to think of robots as scary creations bent on destruction.

Seriously, why give it metal teeth and glowing red eyes? No good can come of that, I tell you!

However, I was recently highly entertained (to an embarrassing degree, really) by a car commercial featuring killer robots from a first-person shooter-type video game breaking out into a complicated dance routine. And, well, dancing robots are hilarious. The more they're built for destruction, the funnier the dancing becomes, as you can see for yourself:

Yeah, that's right. I like the Kia hamsters, with their furry little cheeks, comically large bellies, and brightly colored pants. But this spot also got me thinking about all of the dancing robots I've enjoyed in the past, both real and CGI. As it turns out, robots have been dancing for years now.

Why Make Robots Dance?

Even before the technology was in place, humans were intrigued at the thought of robots that move like we do. In 1927, the silent film Metropolis by Fritz Lang depicted the creation of a female robot whose erotic dancing drives the men of the city wild. The video clip is slightly NSFW and more-than-slightly insane, with special effects that were cutting edge at the time.

So what is it about dancing robots that fascinated a filmmaker almost a century ago, and that inspires robot engineers and advertising execs today?

"Dancing is something very human. You don't expect to see robots dancing like that," Dr. Kazuhito Yokoi, leader of the Humanoid Research Group at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, told IEEE Spectrum.

And as for why scientists strive to create a better dancing robot, Drexel University engineering professor Youngmoo Kim told NPR's Science Friday: “It’s fun to do ... There’s a very tangible result when you get a robot to play a piano piece or to dance."

Furthermore, Kim said that the robot evolution is bound to advance quickly in upcoming years. He compared it to the progress on computers; 50 years ago, computers were huge mainframes with limited availability to the public. As computers got smaller, more people had access, which led to scads of innovations. So it will go with robots, Kim argues, and some of those innovators will focus on robots that engage in creative human expression, such as dance. In fact, the 2009 ROBO-ONE GATE biped robot competition featured a robot dance-off; you can check out the winners and other entrants here.

Below are a few other noteworthy dancing robots.

Real Robots

Keepon is a friendly little yellow 'bot who was designed for children. Keepon responds to movement with simple actions of its own, which can help researchers study how children interact socially. Keepon has been particularly helpful for autistic children, who often make eye contact with the friendly little robot and touch it more frequently than they do humans. You can see Keepon in action here. What's extra great about this clip is the way he (He? He looks like a he) inspires his robot buddies to join in the dancing.

Some robots prefer traditional folk dances, although this one's costume leaves a bit to be desired.

This robot lets her partner lead. But to be honest, this is less ballroom dancing and more pushing around a big dressmaker's dummy on wheels.

This robot lands firmly in the Uncanny Valley: Human-like to an amazing degree, but off by just enough to give everyone observing her the wiggins.

Robot fan dancing! They have the synchronicity of a troupe of Rockettes.

This pole dancer robot (accompanied by a DJ robot) and her mechanical hip thrusts will make you sad, and slightly uneasy.

CGI Robots

Kia's certainly not the only car company to feature dancing robots. (It is probably the only car company to feature hip-hop hamsters, though.)

We'll leave you with this clip, which may be the best use of your online browsing time that I can think of: Optimus Prime recreating the YouTube hit "Evolution of Dance."

So did we leave out your favorite dancing robot? Let us know in the comments!

Here's hoping that if your weekend involves robots, they're the dancing kind, not the destroy all humans kind. And seriously, a secret part of you finds the Kia hamsters at least a bit entertaining, right?
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  1. I love how all it takes to stop the robot apocalypse are dancing giant hamsters. :) Loved that one.

    I liked the transformer ones too - so funny.

  2. After watching that Keepon dance, I desperately want one!!!!!

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