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How Do You Teach a Robot Feelings? Make It Sing Opera

Child-sized robot Myon had the lead role in a Berlin production.

by Emiko Jozuka
Jun 29 2015, 3:30pm

Image: Iko Freese/ drama-berlin.de

Last week, a humanoid robot called Myon took a lead role in "My Square Lady", a new opera that opened in Berlin's Komische Oper in Germany. But while Myon can sing and wave its arms around, will robot performers ever live up to their human counterparts?

Gif from video: Komische Oper Berlin/YouTube

Myon was built in the context of the European Union's Artificial Language Evolution on Autonomous Robot's (ALEAR) project to explore cognitive robotics and artificial language evolution. It is a creation from Professor Manfred Hild's Neurorobotics Research Laboratory at the Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

For My Square Lady, the researchers and cast worked together for two years to teach Myon an assortment of behaviours, and have it sing and perform with the singers and an orchestra.

Myon isn't controlled from backstage by a hidden robo-operator; it's programmed to respond to the opera crew and act on its own. For example, it can shuffle around slowly, focus on visual cues (in this case the colour red) and sounds, and sing with an orchestra.

"The opera is about showing the robot what it means to be a human being with emotions," Bernhard Hansky, a singer from the opera, told me. "Every piece that we sing for him in the show is about a different emotion." Hansky sings about death and destruction in the opera.

Myon is around the same size as an eight-year-old kid and weighs 16 kg. It has a camera in its head and is made up of six detachable body parts that can be pulled apart, then pieced back together again. What's cool (or freaky) about that is each of the parts is equipped with its own energy supply, processing power, and neural network—so each can actually function on its own.

"No one can control Myon and there is no man behind him telling him what to do—the fascinating thing is that he's independent," said Hansky. The singer described "meeting" Myon two years ago, when he had no theatrical talents to boast of.

"He was sitting in front of us on a chair and that was it. He could do nothing more than just sit and stare at us," said Hansky. "But in these last two years, he's acquired knowledge about human behaviours and he is now able to do stuff by himself."

While Hansky said that performing with a robot was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the rehearsals and performance weren't exactly problem-free. Subject to the laws of battery power and hardware blips, Hansky recalled that Myon stopped working in one scene during the show, and a few times during rehearsals. "Sometimes he was broken because someone pushed the wrong button, and then it was his death and the rehearsal just ended early," said Hansky.

Image: Iko Freese/ drama-berlin.de

Other times, it just seemed like Myon was pulling all the strings.

In the last scene, the robot—who gets to sing along with the cast—decides when to sing along with the orchestra, and at what pace. "The conductor's main problem is that he has to slow the orchestra down when he hears Myon deciding to sing slower than the orchestra," said Hansky. "It's a big challenge for everyone on the show to react to him. We were all freaking out a bit because we didn't know what was coming next."

The idea of putting robots on stage isn't new. Back in 2008, Japanese playwright Oriza Hirata teamed up with roboticist and inventor of the geminoid android series Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro to put on a play called I, Worker, which premiered the concept of robot theatre in Japan. Since then, Hirata has come up with four more robot pieces featuring everything from yellow bug-like robots to more life-like geminoids.

But even back then, actors remarked on some of the difficulties of working with automatons. When an actress performed alongside Ishiguro's woman-lookalike F android, she commented that the robot lacked "presence", and made her feel lonely onstage.

Image: Iko Freese/ drama-berlin.de

Hansky said responses to their show had been split between those who enjoyed it, and those who expected more from Myon. "Let's say I also expected a bit more in the beginning. When you hear you will do a piece with a robot you imagine scenes from movies, but then you are a bit disappointed when you see the reality," he said.

Hansky said that initially he'd been expecting Myon to be more intelligent, and to speak and react more to humans. "You think that if you call him, he'll respond, or that he will recognise and remember you," said Hansky. "But it's also a relief to know that it will take many more years before a robot is able to rule the world."

The singing, quasi-dancing Myon is definitely a far cry from the threatening images of killer AI touted by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. Yet even though Myon exudes cuteness, Hansky said he didn't really want to work with robots again.

"I think opera or theatre is about emotions and a robot is not able to show them, and an audience really wants real emotions and human beings on stage," said Hansky. "For me it's enough with robots—I mean on stage at least."