Cute, musician robots: Georgia Tech's latest triple threat

October 7, 2016

Atlanta, GA

Shimon and Shimi were designed to be captivating: Shimon is an improvising robotic marimba player and Shimi is a robotic musical companion that can use your smart-phone to respond to and enhance your musical experience.

Even so, they’re surprisingly charming.

With round camera lenses for “eyes” and heads that bob to the beat of the music they “hear,” Disney animators couldn’t have drawn a cuter robotic band than the ones Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology director Gil Weinberg built.

When Shimon and Shimi jam with human musicians, the result is jaw-dropping. Watching the robots play was enough to make seasoned television host Matt Lauer flub a line during a recent broadcast of the Today Show.

But when a trio of tiny Shimi robots were dancing to the rhythms Shimon was doling out on the set of the popular morning show, Weinberg wasn’t distracted. Instead he was inspired by their musicianship.

“Music is not only about sound production, not only about what note is being played, when and how,” Weinberg said.  “It’s also about gestures and how you play. “

“That’s why Shimon and Shimi are as human-like as possible.”

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, he said. Body movement, gestures and physical interaction tell musicians how to play their instruments.

So when musicians watch Shimon and Shimi, they see the helpful cues they’re used to getting from other humans, Weinberg said.

“They might not focus so much on whether they’re cute or not but they focus on the robot bobbing its head to a particular beat,” he said. “I’m in this beat now.  I can see it, I can hear it and I’m moving with it. “

Shimon and Shimi are unique in the academic world. There aren’t many schools of music that combine music research and artificial intelligence. Weinberg said Georgia Tech’s School of Music is the only one that is combining music research, artificial intelligence and robotics.

For example, 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,” Weinberg said.

Musicians are so inspired by Shimon’s reactions that they actively try to capture his gaze.

Weinberg said the robotic element of his research with Shimi and Shimon has gotten him closer than ever before to creating music with an emotional element.

“I think music is best when it touches you emotionally, when it sends shivers down your spine,” he said. “It can also inspire you intellectually, make you cry, make you laugh, make you ecstatic or brave. This is the kind of music I try to create.”

When Weinberg plays piano with the robots and they produce new music in response, there have been moments that felt close to the elusive, emotional quality of powerful music.

“These moments are becoming more frequent – it’s not there yet,” Weinberg said.  His hope is that these experiments lead to new kinds of music and new ways of thinking about music.

Shimon and Shimi are the latest incarnations of Weinberg’s quest to push the boundaries of music through technology.

“It’s not that humans aren’t awesome -- really awesome -- but at some point I started wondering if I could inspire myself or find something else that would make me think about and play music differently,” he said. So he started writing software that would listen to music and improvise a musical response while studying at MIT.

Robotics entered the picture after he started teaching at Georgia Tech.

“That’s when I started thinking about acoustic sound, and then the visual cues and the embodiment of music. And I found myself mainly in robotics,” he said.

He also found himself in good company: When you live in times that inspire the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk to publicly ponder the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and the possibility of singularity scenarios, it’s clear that robots are part of our culture.

“Maybe music should only be created by humans, but that’s why I’m in academia. We should try!”

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