To the pantheon of adorable robots, Georgia Tech’s Centre for Music technology is making a bid to add a little fellow named Shimon. With one large lens for a friendly eye and four mallets in hand, Shimon is a demon on the marimba. But while rocking out with the best improvisational jazz musicians, he also shows through mimicry how humans read each other in order to make art.
Shimon can improvise with human musicians by “listening” to them, and following programming to select appropriate complementary beats and notes. But, above and beyond your standard music-generating robot, he also takes in and reflects back particular social cues.
“When you watch a band perform on stage and you observe the guitar player and the drummer synchronizing their movements, you’re actually witnessing an important part of musicianship. […] Body movement, gestures and physical interaction tell musicians how to play their instruments.
[…]Shimon’s intelligence includes an ‘interestingness’ algorithm, where interesting is defined by music that is different from what other players are playing or different from music Shimon heard earlier in a song.
‘And when it does this, he’ll look at you, just like a musician would when you’re playing together, and you do something that was a little off or different,’ [creator Professor Gil] Weinberg said.”
Musicians who jam with Shimon report treating him like a peer: wanting to catch his gaze and while performing and feeling connected to the group as a result.
Beyond the coolness factor, Shimon illustrates how easy it is for a robot to foster human emotional connection. All it takes is a few physical gestures in recognizable shapes, and we fill in the rest. Shimon embodies artistic application, but I could totally see the same principle applied to household helper robots, or even sales robots. Of course, when we get that far…!