Over the years many choreographers and artists have created work with robots, going as far back as automatons being used in theatre and performance in antiquity, including accounts from the ancient Greeks and China from 400 BCE.
Many of the recent works with robots highlight movement across humans and large industrial machines, such as Madeline Gannon, Merritt Moore, Huang Yi, or Thomas Fredunlich. Others take an approach of human dancers with swarm robotics, as in the upcoming work of Adrienne Hart with her company Neon Dance. Or there are dances completely consisting of only robot movers, like William Forsythe’s piece Black Flags, or the demonstrations of technology by Boston Dynamics. What these dances all do is put robotics into artistic or commercial contexts, creating choreography for expressive purposes and putting them in front of audiences.
However, there is another place where dance should be in dialogue with robotics, and that is in the research lab. Researchers who use dance as a way to study and develop movement for robots include Amy Laviers and the RAD Lab and Catie Caun, a PhD student at Stanford University. What these researchers and others have clued in on is very simple - dancers are expert movers and have rich knowledge of how to create movement that robotics research needs.
Dancers are more than just performers or entertainers. They are experts in many other ways. Dancers can move in ways that demonstrate emotional states or communicate narratives. Dancers understand empathy found in movement. Dancers can move solo or in groups, as part of a bigger whole or design. Dancers can improvise complex movements in response to other complex movements. Dancers can move to music, rhythms, or timings that are internal or external.
Robots are used to perform surgeries on humans. Robotics are used for prosthetics. Robots make manufacturing safer and more efficient for human teams. Robots are used for humans to explore Mars. All of these use cases require robots to be highly skilled, with a variety of different kinds of movement at their disposal. And in many cases, robots are moving as collaborators with people.
Dance can provide robotics with a lot of information, but it is also important to remember that dancers are researchers, too, and not just participants in someone else’s work. Dancers question, explore, and examine movement to understand what it feels like and what it looks like to others. Dancers should become collaborators to robotics, applying their knowledge outside of the studio and stage.
Movement research, the expert domain of the dancer, could be applied to many areas where human-robot interaction is starting to be employed. Imagine a robot that can help with medical care, lifting people out of bed or assisting with walking in a rehabilitation process. What better way for a robot to learn to empathically hold the weight of a human than to learn from a dancer who has spent years dedicated to this practice?
One of the problems of collaborating with robotics is the funding. Many robots are being developed as part of military applications or by tech companies. These can bring up ethical or moral barriers to working with some labs, even if there is a greater goal for good.
Dance has a lot to give to the world beyond being on stage. There are fields of science and technology that could greatly benefit from the knowledge, exploration, and advancement of movement and human interactions that dance creates.