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Cybernetic Third Arm Makes Drummers Even More Annoying

It keeps proper time and comes with an off switch, making this robotic third arm infinitely better than a human drummer

2 min read
Cybernetic Third Arm Makes Drummers Even More Annoying
Photo: Georgia Tech

A few years ago, we wrote about this cybernetic arm that Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg developed for a drummer who had his right arm amputated. This was cool enough by itself, but back in 2014, Weinberg was already thinking about the next step: “robotic synchronization technology could potentially be used in the future by fully abled humans to control an embedded, mechanical third arm.” THE FUTURE IS NOW, and so are drummers that are 30 percent louder. Hooray?

It even seems to keep the beat properly most of the time, which is much better than what you can expect from a human drummer. Not bad!

From the human’s perspective, the drumming arm is programmed to mostly just do its own thing, adapting to whatever you’re doing. It knows where your drums are, where your hands are, and what you’re playing, and if it behaves itself the way it’s supposed to, you really shouldn’t have to think about it. It can improvise all by itself based on the beat and rhythm of what it hears, and even do call and response with you.

Meanwhile, the drummer is wearing an EEG headband that isn’t being actively used at the moment, but eventually, Weinberg is “hoping to identify patterns that would allow the arm to react when the musician simply thinks about changing tempo or instruments.” Presumably, if you think about changing tempo the arm will adapt with you, and if you think about changing instruments to something besides drums, the arm will give you a high five.

Even farther down the line, here’s what Weinberg is thinking about:

“Imagine if doctors could use a third arm to bring them tools, supplies or even participate in surgeries. Technicians could use an extra hand to help with repairs and experiments,” he said. “Music is based on very timely, precise movements. It’s the perfect medium to try this concept of human augmentation and a third arm.”

This is a similar idea to those supernumerary robotic arms that we’ve seen from MIT, except with a little more agency on behalf of the arm, emphasizing autonomy over adaptive assistance.

And while I’m sure that drummers everywhere will be all kinds of excited about the ability to make even more noise, this isn’t something I’m personally looking forward to. At all. I have plenty of close-range experience with drummers doing their very best to be as loud as possible, and as far as I can tell, the only advantage of having drummers with a third arm is that you’d only need two thirds as many of them. So, probably worth it then, right?

[ Georgia Tech ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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