The stage is set: One Ringo Starr drum set, circa the 1960s, three custom-built percussion instruments made from PVC pipe, a la the Blue Man Group, and four robots.
Silver, four-foot-tall humanoid robots — or HUBOs.
Graduate students in Drexel’s engineering department make minute adjustments to the robots in preparation for shooting a music video with the robots. They tweak the angle of the their arms so their mallets hit the homemade instruments just right. They stick tape to the floor underneath their feet so they don’t slip.
The final minute-and-a-half-long video, featuring the robots and their rendition of The Beatles’ “Come Together,” ended up requiring 19 takes.
“Robots are worse than supermodels,” said engineering professor Youngmoo Kim while overseeing the shoot. “Not that I would know.”
Engineering grad student Erik Schmidt explained how one computer is controlling the motions of the four machines: “We programmed specific gestures for each HUBO to hit a certain note,” said Schmidt, “and essentially what it’s doing is it’s reading the score and, at a certain time, it’s saying ‘Ok, I play this note now.'”
The group hopes the music video goes viral. But outside of online fame, they said there is a point to making robots play music.
“If a robot can play an instrument, there’s no reason it can’t fold your laundry, can’t learn how to operate machinery,” Schmidt said. “We’re tying to learn more about how humans operate and really any way we do that can be helpful.”
Drexel’s seven new HUBOs are part of a first-of-its kind National Science Foundation study meant to develop the robots as a standardized research instrument.
Professor Youngmoo Kim said, because there are different models of humanoid robots, each with different hardware and modifications, it’s hard to do comparative studies with them.
“The idea behind this project is to standardize on one model so that we can be working from the same base platform,” Kim said. “Then if I do research into human-robot interaction and someone else is doing research into human-robot interaction, we can compare results directly. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison.”
The robots were made at a partner university in South Korea before being sent to Drexel for enhancements.
“In their base configuration they can’t do too many things in terms of interacting with the real world,” Kim said. “They can’t see. They can’t hear. They can’t touch, in the sense that they can’t feel things. So all of those are capabilities that we’re adding to these robots.”
The ultimate goal for humanoid robots is to train them to navigate the human landscape — to clean up hazardous waste, go into space, or just unload the dishwasher.
But first, these robots will learn to play, albeit a bit mechanically, a classic Beatles tune.