Listen to this piano-playing robot hit all the right notes
Robots are steadily improving at many tasks, and even outdoing humans at some of them. But they’re still incredibly clumsy when it comes to fine motor movements in small small joints, like our hands. Typically, even toddlers can blow the most cutting edge robots out of the water when it comes to incorporating feedback into how we touch, move or grip things. For example, when you get into a new car with a gas pedal more sensitive than your old one, you adjust your foot pressure accordingly. Your brain, your body, and the environment work together to help you determine the right movement and execute it. Researchers wanted to build robots capable of using this three-pronged approach – mind, body, environment – to execute more complex and sensitive movements. So they used 3D printing to create a skeleton-like hand, integrating materials with different flexibilities to simulate the complex arrangement of bones, joints, and ligaments in the human hand. They built several hands with different levels of stiffness in each joint to see what kind of behaviors they could achieve. To test the ability of the skeleton hand to perform challenging mechanical tasks, they had it play piano music in different styles, something that can trip up even the most dexterous of humans. The hand was able to play the piano using the staccato technique with slightly shortened, bouncy notes. It could also play glissando, where you slide smoothly between the notes The researchers analyzed how much force the robot was using and how quickly it was hitting each note, and they found a strong match to the force and timing of a human playing the same pieces. While the skeleton hand did not capture all of the complexities of the human hand, the researchers see it as a step forward in creating robots capable of more complex, nuanced interactions with objects in their environment, by taking advantage of the natural flexibility of the human hand. The hands could be one day be used for a variety of job that require a delicate touch like picking fruit off of trees or feeling for tumors or unusual tissues. But for now, they’ll stick to tickling the ivories, and they might even have a festive song or two up their sleeves.