Robots in the dance troupe

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 29 2011 11:41 AM

Robots in the Dance Troupe

Dancer Matt Del Rosario from Pilobolus performs a scene from“Seraph” along with robots created in partnership with the engineers, programmers, and pilots of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Dancer Matt Del Rosario from Pilobolus performs a scene from“Seraph” along with robots created in partnership with the engineers, programmers, and pilots of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

The usual dancing robot is funny, but not terribly graceful. (After all, robots can’t move like humans.) But the dance troupe Pilobolus has incorporated robots in a lovely, graceful way. Pilobolus has long explored the way dance can be informed or enhanced by science; see its 2005 performance of “Symbiosis” at TED (“Does it trace the birth of a relationship? Or the co-evolution of symbiotic species?”).

Over the summer, Pilobolus has joined with the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab and its Distributed Robotics Lab to put on a piece called “Seraph” at New York’s Joyce Theater. “Seraph” features both human dancers and elegant, LED-bedecked quadrotors—four-bladed robotic helicopters. The bots are controlled offstage by expert quadrotors captains. The Economist’s technology blog Babbage says, “When the choreography demands that the robots ‘act happy’, for instance, they flutter like butterflies, a move not strictly necessary for security surveillance. They also have to swing like pendulums and jump like pogo sticks.” The pairing may sound a little gimmicky; indeed, when the dance was in previews over the winter, an unmoved Boston Globe writer said, “it explores how machines are us—in their relationships to one another and the people who make them. But though the robots fly, the piece itself never really gets off the ground.”

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It may not have transformed the dance world. Babbage calls the piece “[m]ostly … just fun.” Still, as an experiment in melding human and robotic movement, “Seraph” remains intriguing.

Watch the performance:

Read more on the Economist.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. Follow her on Twitter.