Robot Swan Dances Swan Lake

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A Swedish research team recently unveiled “The Dying Swan,” a robotic waterfowl that flaps and writhes to the melodramatic strains of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” I’ll say this—the designers did a good job conveying the special misery of a sick bird. Its tattered black plumage would be sad on its own, but the droopy tutu-like garment around the bird’s midsection verges on tragic.

Watch the video here.

The point of the performance–which premiered at a Gothenburg book fair last month–is to “explore the limits of what a robot can do, what human expressions it can mimic, and how it affects people’s perception of the robot when it makes an appearance in art and dance,” says creator Lars Asplund, a computer scientist at Sweden’s Malardalen University. Some viewers were reportedly moved to tears. (If that’s the general reaction, maybe the robot could be recast as a Canada goose and used to protest New York City’s controversial geese-gassing programs.) But other onlookers, I’m guessing, were amused despite themselves. It’s not really the robot swan’s fault that it’s funny. It only has 19 joints, whereas the ballerinas who typically dance the role of Odette have a gazillion.

In some ways, though, it’s actually easier for a robot behave like a prima ballerina than a human baby. While reporting a piece last year about social machines, I learned that that the most daunting robotic tasks aren’t always the ones that seem most difficult. It’s apparently simple stuff, like reaching for a particular object, or recognizing an individual, that trips up programmers. Complicated choreography, by contrast, they’ve occasionally mastered (check out this neat fan dance with Michael Jackson-esque flourishes.) If high art applications are more achievable than basic social interactions, robots could soon have a role on our stages, mimicking everyone from Beyonce to Pavarotti.

The Japanese recently showed off the “divabot,” a comely young robo-woman who warbles in a cartoon-like voice. And this fall the MIT Media Lab debuted “Death and the Powers,” an “opera of the future” that features robots that dance and discuss the meaning of death. Naturally, the opera is about an inventor who has downloaded himself into the environment because he wants to live forever. Up next: “The Marriage of C-3PO.”

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