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Photo: Associated Press.
Marc Raibert, founder and chair of Boston Dynamics, with an Atlas robot that can dance with near-human fluidity.

We can probably all think of discoveries that initially seem frivolous or peculiar and later turn out to be important to humanity. So perhaps we shouldn’t laugh too much about a robot dancing to Motown. Who can tell what will come of it?

Rodrique Ngowi writes at the Associated Press (AP), “The man who designed some of the world’s most advanced dynamic robots was on a daunting mission: programming his creations to dance to the beat with a mix of fluid, explosive and expressive motions that are almost human.

“The results? Almost a year and half of choreography, simulation, programming and upgrades that were capped by two days of filming to produce a video running at less than 3 minutes. The clip, showing robots dancing to the 1962 hit ‘Do You Love Me?’ by The Contours, was an instant hit on social media, attracting more than 23 million views during the first week.

“It shows two of Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas research robots doing the twist, the mashed potato and other classic moves, joined by Spot, a doglike robot, and Handle, a wheeled robot designed for lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse or truck. …

“[Says Boston Dynamics founder and chairperson Marc Raibert], ‘We didn’t want a robot doing robotlike dancing. We wanted it to do human dancing and, you know, when a human dances, the music has a beat and their whole body moves to it — their hands, their body, their head,’ he says. …

‘It looked like the robot was having fun and really moved with the music. And I think that had a lot to do with the result of the production.’

“Teaching robots to dance with fluid and expressive motions was a new challenge for a company that spent years building robots that have functional abilities like walking, navigating in rough terrain, pick things up with their hands and use attached advanced sensors to monitor and sense many things, Raibert says.

“ ‘You know, our job is to try and stretch the boundaries of what robots can do, both in terms of the outer research boundary, but also in terms of practical applications. And I think when people see the new things that robots can do, it excites them,’ he says.

“The advanced Atlas robot relies on a wide array of sensors to execute the dance moves, including 28 actuators — devices that serve as muscles by converting electronic or physical signal into movement — as well as a gyroscope that helps it to balance, and three quad-core onboard computers, including one that processes perception signals and two that control movement. …

“ ‘We’ve gotten calls from all around the world,’ Raibert says. ‘We got a call from one of the sound engineers who had recorded the original Contours performance back in the ’60s. And he said that his whole crew of Motown friends had been passing it around.’ “

More at AP, here.

A dancing Atlas robot at Boston Dynamics.

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