Evan Ackerman: I’m Evan Ackerman, and welcome to ChatBot, a robotics podcast from IEEE Spectrum. On this episode of ChatBot, we’ll be talking with Monica Thomas and Amy LaViers about robots and dance. Monica Thomas is a dancer and choreographer. Monica has worked with Boston Dynamics to choreograph some of their robot videos in which Atlas, Spot, and even Handle dance to songs like Do You Love Me? The, “Do You Love Me?” Video has been viewed 37 million times. And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s pretty amazing to see how these robots can move. Amy LaViers is the director of the Robotics, Automation, and Dance Lab, or RAD lab, which she founded in 2015 as a professor in Mechanical Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The RAD Lab is a collective for art making, commercialization, education, outreach, and research at the intersection of dance and robotics. And Amy’s work explores the creative relationships between machines and humans, as expressed through movement. So Monica, can you just tell me– I think people in the robotics field may not know who you are or why you’re on the podcast at this point, so can you just describe how you initially got involved in Boston Dynamics?
Monica Thomas: Yeah. So I got involved really casually. I know people who work at Boston Dynamics and Marc Raibert, their founder and head. They’d been working on Spot, and they added the arm to Spot. And Marc was kind of like, “I kind of think this could dance.” And they were like, “Do you think this could dance?” And I was like, “It could definitely dance. That definitely could do a lot of dancing.” And so we just started trying to figure out, can it move in a way that feels like dance to people watching it? And the first thing we made was Uptown Spot. And it was really just figuring out moves that the robot does kind of already naturally. And that’s when they started developing, I think, Choreographer, their tool. But in terms of my thinking, it was just I was watching what the robot did as its normal patterns, like going up, going down, walking this place, different steps, different gates, what is interesting to me, what looks beautiful to me, what looks funny to me, and then imagining what else we could be doing, considering the angles of the joints. And then it just grew from there. And so once that one was out, Marc was like, “What about the rest of the robots? Could they dance? Maybe we could do a dance with all of the robots.” And I was like, “We could definitely do a dance with all of the robots. Any shape can dance.” So that’s when we started working on what turned into Do You Love Me? I didn’t really realize what a big deal it was until it came out and it went viral. And I was like, “Oh—” are we allowed to swear, or—?
Ackerman: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Thomas: Yeah. So I was like, “[bleep bleep, bleeeep] is this?” I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to think about it. As a performer, the largest audience I performed for in a day was like 700 people, which is a big audience as a live performer. So when you’re hitting millions, it’s just like it doesn’t even make sense anymore, and yeah. So that was pretty mind-boggling. And then also because of kind of how it was introduced and because there is a whole world of choreo-robotics, which I was not really aware of because I was just doing my thing. Then I realized there’s all of this work that’s been happening that I couldn’t reference, didn’t know about, and conversations that were really important in the field that I also was unaware of and then suddenly was a part of. So I think doing work that has more viewership is really—it was a trip and a half—is a trip and a half. I’m still learning about it. Does that answer your question?
Ackerman: Yeah. Definitely.
Thomas: It’s a long-winded answer, but.
Ackerman: And Amy, so you have been working in these two disciplines for a long time, in the disciplines of robotics and in dance. So what made you decide to combine these two things, and why is that important?
Amy LaViers: Yeah. Well, both things, I guess in some way, have always been present in my life. I’ve danced since I was three, probably, and my dad and all of his brothers and my grandfathers were engineers. So in some sense, they were always there. And it was really– I could tell you the date. I sometimes forget what it was, but it was a Thursday, and I was taking classes and dancing and controlling of mechanical systems, and I was realizing this over. I mean, I don’t think I’m combining them. I feel like they already kind of have this intersection that just exists. And I realized– or I stumbled into that intersection myself, and I found lots of people working in it. And I was– oh, my interests in both these fields kind of reinforce one another in a way that’s really exciting and interesting. I also happened to be an almost graduating– I was in last class of my junior year of college, so I was thinking, “What am I going to do with myself?” Right? So it was very happenstance in that way. And again, I mean, I just felt like— it was like I walked into a room where all of a sudden, a lot of things made sense to me, and a lot of interests of mine were both present.
Ackerman: And can you summarize, I guess, the importance here? Because I feel like— I’m sure this is something you’ve run into, is that it’s easy for engineers or roboticists just to be— I mean, honestly, a little bit dismissive of this idea that it’s important for robots to have this expressivity. So why is it important?
LaViers: That is a great question that if I could summarize what my life is like, it’s me on a computer going like this, trying to figure out the words to answer that succinctly. But one way I might ask it, earlier when we were talking, you mentioned this idea of functional behavior versus expressive behavior, which comes up a lot when we start thinking in this space. And I think one thing that happens– and my training and background in Laban Movement Analysis really emphasizes this duality between function and expression as opposed to the either/or. It’s kind of like the mind-body split, the idea that these things are one integrated unit. Function and expression are an integrated unit. And something that is functional is really expressive. Something that is expressive is really functional.
Ackerman: It definitely answers the question. And it looks like Monica is resonating with you a little bit, so I’m just going to get out of the way here. Amy, do you want to just start this conversation with Monica?
LaViers: Sure. Sure. Monica has already answered, literally, my first question, so I’m already having to shuffle a little bit. But I’m going to rephrase. My first question was, can robots dance? And I love how emphatically and beautifully you answered that with, “Any shape can dance.” I think that’s so beautiful. That was a great answer, and I think it brings up— you can debate, is this dance, or is this not? But there’s also a way to look at any movement through the lens of dance, and that includes factory robots that nobody ever sees.
Thomas: It’s exciting. I mean, it’s a really nice way to walk through the world, so I actually recommend it for everyone, just like taking a time and seeing the movement around you as dance. I don’t know if it’s allowing it to be intentional or just to be special, meaningful, something.
LaViers: That’s a really big challenge, particularly for an autonomous system. And for any moving system, I think that’s hard, artificial or not. I mean it’s hard for me. My family’s coming into town this weekend. I’m like, “How do I act so that they know I love them?” Right? That’s dramaticized version of real life, right, is, how do I be welcoming to my guests? And that’ll be, how do I move?
Thomas: What you’re saying is a reminder of, one of the things that I really enjoy watching robots move is that I’m allowed to project as much as I want to on them without taking away something from them. When you project too much on people, you lose the person, and that’s not really fair. But when you’re projecting on objects, things that are objects but that we personify— or not even personify, that we anthropomorphize or whatever, it is just a projection of us. But it’s acceptable. So nice for it to be acceptable, a place where you get to do that.
LaViers: Well, okay. Then can I ask my fourth question even though it’s not my turn? Because that’s just too perfect to what it is, which is just, what did you learn about yourself working with these robots?
Thomas: Well, I learned how much I love visually watching movement. I’ve always watched, but I don’t think it was as clear to me how much I like movement. The work that I made was really about context. It was about what’s happening in society, what’s happening in me as a person. But I never got into that school of dance that really spends time just really paying attention to movement or letting movement develop or explore, exploring movement. That wasn’t what I was doing. And with robots, I was like, “Oh, but yeah, I get it better now. I see it more now.” So much in life right now, for me, is not contained, and it doesn’t have answers. And translating movement across species from my body to a robot, that does have answers. It has multiple answers. It’s not like there’s a yes and a no, but you can answer a question. And it’s so nice to answer questions sometimes. I sat with this thing, and here’s something I feel like is an acceptable solution. Wow. That’s a rarity in life. So I love that about working with robots. I mean, also, they’re cool, I think. And it is also— they’re just cool. I mean, that’s true too. It’s also interesting. I guess the last thing that I really loved—and I didn’t have much opportunity to do this or as much as you’d expect because of COVID—is being in space with robots. It’s really interesting, just like being in space with anything that is different than your norm is notable. Being in space with an animal that you’re not used to being with is notable. And there’s just something really cool about being with something very different. And for me, robots are very different and not acclimatized.
Ackerman: Okay. Monica, you want to ask a question or two?
Thomas: Yeah. I do. The order of my questions is ruined also. I was thinking about the RAD Lab, and I was wondering if there are guiding principles that you feel are really important in that interdisciplinary work that you’re doing, and also any lessons maybe from the other side that are worth sharing.
LaViers: The usual way I describe it and describe my work more broadly is, I think there are a lot of roboticists that hire dancers, and they make robots and those dancers help them. And there are a lot of dancers that they hire engineers, and those engineers build something for them that they use inside of their work. And what I’m interested in, in the little litmus test or challenge I paint for myself and my collaborators is we want to be right in between those two things, right, where we are making something. First of all, we’re treating each other as peers, as technical peers, as artistic peers, as— if the robot moves on stage, I mean, that’s choreography. If the choreographer asks for the robot to move in a certain way, that’s robotics. That’s the inflection point we want to be at. And so that means, for example, in terms of crediting the work, we try to credit the creative contributions. And not just like, “Oh, well, you did 10 percent of the creative contributions.” We really try to treat each other as co-artistic collaborators and co-technical developers. And so artists are on our papers, and engineers are in our programs, to put it in that way. And likewise, that changes the questions we want to ask. We want to make something that pushes robotics just a inch further, a millimeter further. And we want to do something that pushes dance just an inch further, a millimeter further. We would love it if people would ask us, “Is this dance?” We get, “Is this robotics?” Quite a lot. So that makes me feel like we must be doing something interesting in robotics.
And every now and then, I think we do something interesting for dance too, and certainly, many of my collaborators do. And that inflection point, that’s just where I think is interesting. And I think that’s where— that’s the room I stumbled into, is where we’re asking those questions as opposed to just developing a robot and hiring someone to help us do that. I mean, it can be hard in that environment that people feel like their expertise is being given to the other side. And then, where am I an expert? And we’ve heard editors at publication venues say, “Well, this dancer can’t be a co-author,” and we’ve had venues where we’re working on the program and people say, “Well, no, this engineer isn’t a performer,” but I’m like, “But he’s queuing the robot, and if he messes up, then we all mess up.” I mean, that’s vulnerability too. So we have those conversations that are really touchy and a little sensitive and a little— and so how do you create that space where people do you feel safe and comfortable and valued and attributed for their work and that they can make a track record and do this again in another project, in another context and— so, I don’t know, if I’ve learned anything, I mean, I’ve learned that you just have to really talk about attribution all the time. I bring it up every time, and then I bring it up before we even think about writing a paper. And then I bring it up when we make the draft. And first thing I put in the draft is everybody’s name in the order it’s going to appear, with the affiliations and with the—subscripts on that don’t get added at the last minute. And when the editor of a very famous robotics venue says, “This person can’t be a co-author,” that person doesn’t get taken off as a co-author; that person is a co-author, and we figure out another way to make it work. And so I think that’s learning, or that’s just a struggle anyway.
Ackerman: Monica, I’m curious if when you saw the Boston Dynamics videos go viral, did you feel like there was much more of a focus on the robots and the mechanical capabilities than there was on the choreography and the dance? And if so, how did that make you feel?
Thomas: Yeah. So yes. Right. When dances I’ve made have been reviewed, which I’ve always really appreciated, it has been about the dance. It’s been about the choreography. And actually, kind of going way back to what we were talking about a couple things ago, a lot of the reviews that you get around this are about people, their reactions, right? Because, again, we can project so much onto robots. So I learned a lot about people, how people think about robots. There’s a lot of really overt themes, and then there’s individual nuance. But yeah, it wasn’t really about the dance, and it was in the middle of the pandemic too. So there’s really high isolation. I had no idea how people who cared about dance thought about it for a long time. And then every once in a while, I get one person here or one person there say something. So it’s a totally weird experience. Yes.
The way that I took information about the dance was kind of paying attention to the affective experience, the emotional experience that people had watching this. The dance was— nothing in that dance was— we use the structures of the traditions of dance in it for intentional reason. I chose that because I wasn’t trying to alarm people or show people ways that robots move that totally hit some old part of our brain that makes us absolutely panicked. That wasn’t my interest or the goal of that work. And honestly, at some point, it’d be really interesting to explore what the robots can just do versus what I, as a human, feel comfortable seeing them do. But the emotional response that people got told me a story about what the dance was doing in a backward– also, what the music’s doing because—let’s be real—that music does— right? We stacked the deck.
LaViers: Yeah. And now that brings— I feel like that serves up two of my questions, and I might let you pick which one maybe we go to. I mean, one of my questions, I wrote down some of my favorite moments from the choreography that I thought we could discuss. Another question—and maybe we can do both of these in serie—is a little bit about— I’ll blush even just saying it, and I’m so glad that the people can’t see the blushing. But also, there’s been so much nodding, and I’m noticing that that won’t be in the audio recording. We’re nodding along to each other so much. But the other side—and you can just nod in a way that gives me your—the other question that comes up for that is, yeah, what is the monetary piece of this, and where are the power dynamics inside this? And how do you feel about how that sits now as that video continues to just make its rounds on the internet and establish value for Boston Dynamics?
Thomas: I would love to start with the first question. And the second one is super important, and maybe another day for that one.
Ackerman: Okay. That’s fair. That’s fair.
LaViers: Yep. I like that. I like that. So the first question, so my favorite moments of the piece that you choreographed to Do You Love Me? For the Boston Dynamics robots, the swinging arms at the beginning, where you don’t fully know where this is going. It looks so casual and so, dare I say it, natural, although it’s completely artificial, right? And the proximal rotation of the legs, I feel like it’s a genius way of getting around no spine. But you really make use of things that look like hip joints or shoulder joints as a way of, to me, accessing a good wriggle or a good juicy moment, and then the Spot space hold, I call it, where the head of the Spot is holding in place and then the robot wiggles around that, dances around that. And then the moment when you see all four complete—these distinct bodies, and it looks like they’re dancing together. And we touched on that earlier—any shape can dance—but making them all dance together I thought was really brilliant and effective in the work. So it’s one of those moments, super interesting, or you have a funny story about, I thought we could talk about it further.
Thomas: I have a funny story about the hip joints. So the initial— well, not the initial, but when they do the mashed potato, that was the first dance move that we started working on, on Atlas. And for folks who don’t know, the mashed potato is kind of the feet are going in and out; the knees are going in and out. So we ran into a couple of problems, which—and the twist. I guess it’s a combo. Both of them like you to roll your feet on the ground like rub, and that friction was not good for the robots. So when we first started really moving into the twist, which has this torso twisting— the legs are twisting. The foot should be twisting on the floor. The foot is not twisting on the floor, and the legs were so turned out that the shape of the pelvic region looked like a over-full diaper. So, I mean, it was wiggling, but it made the robot look young. It made the robot look like it was in a diaper that needed to be changed. It did not look like a twist that anybody would want to do near anybody else. And it was really amazing how— I mean, it was just hilarious to see it. And the engineers come in. They’re really seeing the movement and trying to figure out what they need for the movement. And I was like, “Well, it looks like it has a very full diaper.” And they were like, “Oh.” They knew it didn’t quite look right, but it was like—because I think they really don’t project as much as I do, I’m very projective that’s one of the ways that I’ve watched work, or you’re pulling from the work that way, but that’s not what they were looking at. And so yeah, then you change the angles of the legs, how turned in it is and whatever, and it resolved to a degree, I think, fairly successfully. It doesn’t really look like a diaper anymore. But that wasn’t really— and also to get that move right took us over a month.
Thomas: We got much faster after that because it was the first, and we really learned. But it took a month of programming, me coming in, naming specific ways of reshifting it before we got a twist that felt natural if amended because it’s not the same way that–
LaViers: Yeah. Well, and it’s fascinating to think about how to get it to look the same. You had to change the way it did the movement, is what I heard you describing there, and I think that’s so fascinating, right? And just how distinct the morphologies between our body and any of these bodies, even the very facile human-ish looking Atlas, that there’s still a lot of really nuanced and fine-grained and human work-intensive labor to go into getting that to look the same as what we all think of as the twist or the mashed potato.
Thomas: Right. Right. And it does need to be something that we can project those dances onto, or it doesn’t work, in terms of this dance. It could work in another one. Yeah.
LaViers: Right. And you brought that up earlier, too, of trying to work inside of some established forms of dance as opposed to making us all terrified by the strange movement that can happen, which I think is interesting. And I hope one day you get to do that dance too.
Thomas: Yeah. No, I totally want to do that dance too.
Ackerman: Monica, do you have one last question you want to ask?
Thomas: I do. And this is— yeah. I want to ask you, kind of what does embodied or body-based intelligence offer in robotic engineering? So I feel like, you, more than anyone, can speak to that because I don’t do that side.
LaViers: Well, I mean, I think it can bring a couple of things. One, it can bring— I mean, the first moment in my career or life that that calls up for me is, I was watching one of my lab mates, when I was a doctoral student, give a talk about a quadruped robot that he was working on, and he was describing the crawling strategy like the gate. And someone said— and I think it was roughly like, “Move the center of gravity inside the polygon of support, and then pick up— the polygon of support formed by three of the legs. And then pick up the fourth leg and move it. Establish a new polygon of support. Move the center of mass into that polygon of support.” And it’s described with these figures. Maybe there’s a center of gravity. It’s like a circle that’s like a checkerboard, and there’s a triangle, and there’s these legs. And someone stands up and is like, “That makes no sense like that. Why would you do that?” And I’m like, “Oh, oh, I know, oh, because that’s one of the ways you can crawl.” I actually didn’t get down on the floor and do it because I was not so outlandish at that point.
But today, in the RAD lab, that would be, “Everyone on all fours, try this strategy out.” Does it feel like a good idea? Are there other ideas that we would use to do this pattern that might be worth exploring here as well? And so truly rolling around on the floor and moving your body and pretending to be a quadruped, which— in my dance classes, it’s a very common thing to practice crawling because we all forget how to crawl. We want to crawl with the cross-lateral pattern and the homo-lateral pattern, and we want to keep our butts down– or keep the butts up, but we want to have that optionality so that we look like we’re facile, natural crawlers. We train that, right? And so for a quadruped robot talk and discussion, I think there’s a very literal way that an embodied exploration of the idea is a completely legitimate way to do research.
Ackerman: Yeah. I mean, Monica, this is what you were saying, too, as you were working with these engineers. Sometimes it sounded like they could tell that something wasn’t quite right, but they didn’t know how to describe it, and they didn’t know how to fix it because they didn’t have that language and experience that both of you have.
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, exactly that.
Ackerman: Okay. Well, I just want to ask you each one more really quick question before we end here, which is that, what is your favorite fictional robot and why? I hope this isn’t too difficult, especially since you both work with real robots, but. Amy, you want to go first?
LaViers: I mean, I’m going to feel like a party pooper. I don’t like any robots, real or fictional. The fictional ones annoy me because– the fictional ones annoy me because of the disambiguation issue and WALL-E and Eva are so cute. And I do love cute things, but are those machines, or are those characters? And are we losing sight of that? I mean, my favorite robot to watch move, this one– I mean, I love the Keepon dancing to Spoon. That is something that if you’re having an off day, you google Keepon dancing to Spoon— Keepon is one word, K-E-E-P-O-N, dancing to Spoon, and you just bop. It’s just a bop. I love it. It’s so simple and so pure and so right.
Ackerman: It’s one of my favorite robots of all time, Monica. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it’s two little yellow balls like this, and it just goes up and down and rocks back and forth. But it does it so to music. It just does it so well. It’s amazing.
Thomas: I will definitely be watching that [crosstalk].
Ackerman: Yeah. And I should have expanded the question, and now I will expand it because Monica hasn’t answered yet. Favorite robot, real or fictional?
Thomas: So I don’t know if it’s my favorite. This one breaks my heart, and I’m currently having an empathy overdrive issue as a general problem. But there’s a robot installation – and I should know its name, but I don’t— where the robot reaches out, and it grabs the oil that they’ve created it to leak and pulls it towards its body. And it’s been doing this for several years now, but it’s really slowing down now. And I don’t think it even needs the oil. I don’t think it’s a robot that uses oil. It just thinks that it needs to keep it close. And it used to happy dance, and the oil has gotten so dark and the red rust color of, oh, this is so morbid of blood, but it just breaks my heart. So I think I love that robot and also want to save it in the really unhealthy way that we sometimes identify with things that we shouldn’t be thinking about that much.
Ackerman: And you both gave amazing answers to that question.
LaViers: And the piece is Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Can’t Help Myself.
Ackerman: That’s right. Yeah.
LaViers: And it is so beautiful. I couldn’t remember the artist’s name either, but—you’re right—it’s so beautiful.
Thomas: It’s beautiful. The movement is beautiful. It’s beautifully considered as an art piece, and the robot is gorgeous and heartbreaking.
Ackerman: Yeah. Those answers were so unexpected, and I love that. So thank you both, and thank you for being on this podcast. This was an amazing conversation. We didn’t have nearly enough time, so we’re going to have to come back to so much.
LaViers: Thank you for having me.
Thomas: Thank you so much for inviting me. [music]
Ackerman: We’ve been talking with Monica Thomas and Amy LaViers about robots and dance. And thanks again to our guests for joining us for ChatBot and IEEE Spectrum. I’m Evan Ackerman.