Cyborg Drumming Arm Makes Amputee Into Superhuman Musician

Gil Weinberg fuses prosthetics and robotics to create a drumming arm that can make music that a mere human drummer can't

2 min read
Cyborg Drumming Arm Makes Amputee Into Superhuman Musician
Photo: Georgia Tech

Gil Weinberg at Georgia Tech designs robots that make music. Not robots that play music, but robots that can actually create music, creatively 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 also 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.

Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg (left) created a robotic prosthesis for Jason Barnes, who lost his right arm two years ago.
Photo: Georgia Tech

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 a wrist and fingers would have. Weinberg's idea was to develop a more advanced prosthetic that is controlled physically by the Jasons' 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 rebounds. The device was designed by Meka Robotics in collaboration with Guy Hoffman and Roberto Aimi.

So 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 fascinating, though, 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. And beyond music, Weinberg envisions an even crazier future:

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.

A robotic third arm? Yes, sign me up. I definitely need it to improve my ski boxing.

[ Georgia Tech ]

UPDATED 21 March 2014 11:41 am

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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.

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“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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