SERVO 05.2014 25
DRUMMIN’ TO A DIFFERENT BEAT
Gil Weinberg at Georgia Tech designs robots that make
music. Not robots that play music, but robots that can actually
create music — artistically improvising new melodies based on
analysis of existing ones, allowing them to have jam sessions
either by themselves or with human musicians.
Weinberg's newest project involves musical robots
collaborating with musical humans — except in a much more
direct way — with the design of a cybernetic upgrade that gives a
drummer who's missing an arm a robotic arm with a musical
mind of its own.
The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media student, Jason
Barnes is a human drummer who lost his right arm just below
the elbow a few years ago. To keep drumming, he built his own
prosthetic, but it didn't provide him with the same level of
control as his wrist and fingers did. Weinberg was able to develop
a more advanced prosthetic that is controlled physically by
Jason’s arm as well as electronically using electromyography
(EMG) muscle sensors in his upper arm, allowing him to adjust
the prosthetic's grip on the stick to control how much it
Now that's cool, but what's really cool is that Weinberg took
things a step farther and gave the prosthetic drumming arm a
second stick. And a brain.
That second stick literally has a mind of its own. It listens to
the music that Jason is playing and then improvises an
accompaniment to play along with him. Jason can't control the
second stick directly, but he can pull it away from the drum when
he wants to play on his own. What's especially fascinating is that
the second stick allows Jason to do stuff that humans can't do.
He can play faster, with a more stable beat than any human can
because he's part robot.
Eventually, Weinberg wants to integrate this arm directly into
Jason's brain so that it'll be able to predict when he wants to hit
the drum, and then make sure that it activates to nail the beat at
that exact moment.
Weinberg says such robotic synchronization technology
could potentially be used in the future by fully abled humans to
control an embedded mechanical third arm during time-sensitive
operations. For example, Weinberg’s anticipation algorithms could
be used to help astronauts or surgeons perform complex
physical tasks in synchronization with robotic devices.
For Barnes, it’s all about the music. “I’ll bet a lot of metal
drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” he said.
“Speed is good. Faster is always better.”
Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg (left) created a
robotic prosthesis for Jason Barnes,
who lost his right arm two years ago.
Photo: Georgia Tech