A robot choreographer reveals why M3GAN — and all robots — should dance

“I think roboticists should become dancers.”

Originally Published: 
M3GAN movie dance move scene
Universal Pictures

Something about dancing robots seems to tickle people’s fancies. After all, millions of people watched a 2020 video from the robotics company Boston Dynamics of its fancy humanoid and quadrupedal devices getting down to ‘60s soul.

More recently, the murderous (yet campy) villain in the movie M3GAN has captivated the internet with her moves — and even earned recognition as a gay icon. Whether we’re obsessing over grooving robots or moving like robots ourselves, automaton choreography clearly holds a place in our hearts.

M3GAN’s creepy yet delightful dance has captivated the internet.

So it’s no surprise that a niche research field dubbed choreorobotics has gained traction in recent years. Brown University even has an entire course dedicated to the subject. Not only are labs programming robots to gyrate and hop, but dance experts are also helping scientists give their devices more fluid, human-like movements. Ultimately, this kind of work could help us feel closer to robots in an increasingly automated world.

Kate Sicchio, a choreographer and digital artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, combines her dance and tech knowledge to devise robot performances. Last year, Sicchio worked with Patrick Martin from the university’s engineering department to produce a (surprisingly touching) human-automaton duet. Offstage, she also helps design machines with more realistic motions.

Inverse talked to Sicchio to learn more about choreorobotics — and whether increasingly limber robots could actually become blood-thirsty killers like M3GAN.

Why do you think robot dancing videos get so popular?

Boston Dynamics regularly stages elaborate bot performances.

It's really interesting to have this unfamiliar device do this uncanny human thing. It’s similar to why we love putting googly eyes on everything. This makes it human even though it's not supposed to be. And that becomes funny or endearing somehow. It's very popular to make the robot do this very human, expressive thing when it's not human or expressive on its own.

What makes a robot performance powerful?

One of the things we found is that a robot on its own feels very isolated and cold. We have this piece called “Amelia and the Machine.” In the opening, this dancer is actually moving the robot arm around.

People are really moved by this intimacy with the robot and the fact that she's touching it.

It's a small manipulator robot, so it's probably the size of a toddler. The fact that she’s sitting next to it — that small connection really changes how people see the robot because it's no longer this isolated thing. All of a sudden it has a companion.

What style of dance do robots do best?

A performance of “Amelia and the Machine” co-choreographed by Kate Sicchio at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Anthony Johnson

My home is contemporary dance, so that's where I go first. That tends to work well because, with the robot we’re using, it's not a one-to-one mapping of the human body onto the robot. Sometimes it's hard to do traditional ballet, where there are really specific positions to hit. It’s really hard to map an arabesque onto a robot that doesn't have a leg.

I think contemporary dance, where there's a lot of freedom and creativity in how you develop movement, works well. I would be interested in doing things with dance forms with more rhythm or more structure and timing — that would be a really interesting study to follow up with at some point. More tutting or street dance forms could be really interesting to play with.

The M3GAN dance seems to frighten, or at least confuse, viewers. Can dancing devices backfire and actually alienate us from robots?

That’s something that we're also studying. There's this weird space where it totally can go wrong and could be like, “They're trying too much to make it human,” and it just falls short and becomes scary. I think what's interesting about M3GAN is that it's a very humanoid robot. The robots I work with do not look human at all, and I'm not interested in trying to make them look human. I get a lot of recommendations to put costumes on them. But I don't know that it needs a hand or a hat, or a tiara. It’s this weird moment where it can become scary instead of endearing or friendly.

One thing that's interesting about M3GAN is how it quickly becomes a killer robot. That is an ethical concern in this field — where might this go wrong? Could this become weaponized somehow if it becomes so good at moving? That's something I think about, too: How do we keep them ethical? I've never taken DARPA funding, but I know people who have gotten military funding for projects like this.

Do you have a favorite Hollywood dancing robot scene?

Sicchio enjoys this unnerving performance from Ex Machina.

The scene from Ex Machina. What I like about that dancing robot scene is it’s kind of the reveal that, guess what, this is all training for this AI robot, and all these women you keep seeing in the house aren't really women — and I'm going to show you because we can do this crazy dance routine together.

What stands out and makes it so interesting is that they do all these disco moves, but their eyes are locked on the guy watching. They never move their heads, which is what makes it so weird and un-human: They never unlock their focus. They're not having fun.

What types of robots have the best moves?

The “Amelia and the Machine” piece uses a relatively simple robot, which Sicchio says works well for performance.

With simpler robots, you can better appreciate the movement they can do and see how that can be made into something more expressive or more collaborative with the human. I think that’s less scary because it's not trying to be human and then failing.

Most researchers use more simple devices — a lot do big industrial arms. It's almost become a trope, the pretty ballerina with the big industrial arm. And then Boston Dynamics has the bipedal, more human sort of robots. The company’s dance spectacles look seamless, but they are actually really hard to program. So they never do them live, you only see the edited videos. They’re a huge production that takes several days to film to get you three minutes of a Bruno Mars song or whatever.

The humanoid ones are just tricky, that center of gravity thing is really hard — it’s easier when the robot is low to the ground. With our small robots, if you make a movement too fast or wild, it will fall over. So you can imagine a big humanoid robot trying to get it to jump, and land is very difficult.

Why is choreorobotics important beyond performance?

I make stage pieces with Patrick Martin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. But we're also doing scientific studies during that process. We found that, because dancers are interested in doing extreme or different movements, they're very good at finding the boundaries of what a robot can do very quickly. A friend of mine calls dancers “extreme user testers.”

We’ve been doing a lot with machine learning and creating new algorithms for robots to move and we’ve been doing that by studying dancers. We do things like motion capture of dancers doing certain gestures, and then see how we can map those to the robot and see if we can get it to move with new qualities or in ways that normal programming hasn't thought of.

I also think it’s interesting when roboticists engage with choreography themselves. We did a workshop with Patrick Martin and his graduate students and some of my dance students — getting them to move. We explored a variety of prompts around moving the body in space, ways to repeat lines of the body with other body parts, and other approaches of responding to the geometry of the body.

When roboticists think about movement, they're always thinking of it outside of their own body. I think about it like getting the robot to follow my arm. Getting roboticists to actually do the dance and be in their bodies is a really interesting place for us to go next. That will start to develop this kind of kinesthetic empathy that perhaps we're searching for with dancing robots. I think roboticists should become dancers.

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