Expert Dancers Get Jiggy With A Robot

Can scientists teach a robot to dance with grandma? No, that question wasn’t a weird Mad Libs answer, this is the underlying focus of a study by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory, and the Atlanta VA. Using a wheeled robot with human-like arms, the researchers studied how the robot followed expert dancers, and if such robots could become good dancing partners for elderly humans.

Dancing with a partner is a common treatment for patients with Parkinson’s. Holding onto another human’s arms and moving with them improves balance, mobility, autonomy, and mood. Partners aren’t always easy to find, so the scientists looked for the obvious solution: What if instead people could dance with robots? Using an existing robot named Cody, they had 10 expert dancers do a very simple dance. Holding onto the robot’s arms, the blindfolded dancers would step back, and then forward, to the beat of a drum. Cody would follow, with a minimum of lag time.

Sensors on the robot told it the directions it was being pulled or pushed, and then the robot’s programming allowed it to move in that direction. To stop the 350-pound robot from running over its dance partners, it immediately stops in place if a person lets go of Cody’s hands. Most of the experts agreed that the robot was a fun dance partner, though two disagreed with the statement: “The robot was fun to dance with.” And the experts were split on whether or not a robot simply moving back and forth with them to the beat counted as “dancing.”

It’s one small step forward for dancing robots as rehabilitation therapy, but it’s another backward with your right, backward with your left, backward with your right, to the left with your left, and then feet together before dancing robots are ready to tango.