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Researchers Want to Make a Robot That Can Dance Like Drake

Is AI capable of artistic creation, or is it simply a slave to its programming?

by James Jackson
Nov 16 2017, 4:19pm

Image: Guy Torsher

Forecast is a series exploring the future of AI and automation in a variety of different sectors—from the arts to city building to finance—to find out what the latest developments might mean for humanity's road ahead. We'll hear from Nikolas Badminton, David Usher, Jennifer Keesmaat, Heather Knight, Madeline Ashby and Director X, among others. Created by Motherboard in partnership with Audi.

Director X knows the value of spontaneous, unchoreographed movement. He is the director behind the blockbuster 2015 music video for “Hotline Bling,” the clip that spawned a thousand memes.

It wasn’t the song’s lyrics or the music itself that gained Drake so much notoriety, but the rapper’s unorthodox dance moves. The internet went crazy, editing the video to make it look like he was playing playing tennis or spreading pepperoni on a pizza. Some compared Drake’s shimmies and shuffles to the awkwardly hypnotic Elaine Benes dance from Seinfeld by playing the song’s audio over clips of her thrashing her arms and legs around like a malfunctioning robot.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons the video was such a phenomenon was it bucked the trend of highly choreographed dance routines that are the norm today. In fact, the video wasn’t choreographed at all, and, according to an interview with one of the producers, Drake knew the dance would become an internet sensation. As of early November 2017, it had more than 1.3 billion views on YouTube.

Canadian-born Director X (Julien Christian Lutz), told Rolling Stone magazine in 2015, “You can't choreograph that. That's just a man dancing.” There was a certain spontaneity involved as Drake simply moved to the music. A spark of creativity that Director X told Motherboard was critical in the creative process.

“That’s the thing that makes our creativity our creativity,” he said.

And it’s something that has been weighing on his mind more these days as artists and dancers venture into the world of artificial intelligence.

British choreographer Wayne McGregor is working to bridge that gap between human dancers and AI. Earlier this year McGregor unveiled his latest show, +/- Human, where AI-controlled spheres swooped and danced across the stage in what arts reviewer Jonathan Jones called, “the most convincing embodiment of artificial intelligence I have ever seen.”

McGregor’s roots in AI go much deeper, and in 2004 he started working on a program called the Choreographic Language Agent (CLA).

Much like how financial advisors and traders now use AI to help their decision-making process when it comes to analyzing the stock market, McGregor developed the CLA to help create “unique solutions to choreographic problems to augment the dance maker's own creative decision-making processes.”

Dancers input sentences of specialized dance language into the AI and the computer interpreted those moves and translated them into movement by incorporating the dancer’s body, the dance studio, and the kinesphere (the area around a dancer that can be touched by extending their limbs while standing on one foot).

It utilized a two-screen system, one that included the text of what the dancers were supposed to be doing, and the second had a three-dimensional manifestation of that text into movement. Once the CLA knew the “language” used by dancers to input the moves, it could interpret the language as a short animation, and using AI algorithms, it generated possible outcomes for these moves.

In a video posted online in 2014, McGregor described the CLA as an “aspiration to have an 11th dancer in the studio, which has agency, autonomy, intelligence and choreographic thinking at its base.”

There were shortcomings with the earliest versions of the CLA, however. One of the biggest was the way it required the dancers repeatedly going to the computer to consult with the AI. It tended to dull any momentum or creative processes they might have had, according to Nick Rothwell, a digital artist and CLA collaborator, in the 2014 video.

“Taking that into a dance studio where dancers are moving around and they’ve warmed up their muscles and want to then do something, and then to sit down at a desk like an office worker and type away on a keyboard, that was clearly breaking that physical thinking or physical making,” said Rothwell, adding the program might work better in a music studio where the musicians are more stationary.

Dance, according to Director X, is one of the most powerful tools in the entertainment industry and has a very primal effect. Some day AI may be able to truly mimic that process, but he told Motherboard he doesn’t think it’s there yet, despite McGregor’s advancements.

He’s directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Justin Bieber and Rihanna, and has helmed ad campaigns for global brands such as Apple, eBay, and Gap. Director X is a self-professed nerd and keen observer of new technology, including AI and robotics, and he knows the creative process well.

“Your body can only do so many things from a certain position, and [AI] can figure out all of those things just like it figured out how to play chess. It can go through all the possibilities lightening fast,” he said.

There’s a difference between calculating all of the possible moves the human body can take from a certain position, and being truly inspired to create compelling (and meme-worthy) dance moves. AI is still missing that spark, he believes.

“Can a robot be inspired now? No. Can it ever? Maybe.”