Robot Dramas


September 2, 2014
The Huffington Post
link to original article

Robot Dramas: Autonomous Machines in the Limelight on Stage and in Society
By Aaron Dubrow

David Saltz, head of theatre and film studies at the University of Georgia, premiered a different kind of robot performance in 2012.

“Commedia Robotica” starred a foot-tall robot named Zeeb Zob, who had been “trained” to perform Commedia dell’arte, a highly stylized form of classical Italian theater.

“Our goal was to teach the robot to be a good actor,” Saltz said of the experimental play.

Commedia dell’arte consists of a set of highly defined characters who, by convention, use precise pre-determined gestures and postures to communicate. Saltz was able to program Zeeb Zob to strike these poses and to move onstage in realistic, human-like ways.

The production included a range of techniques for moving the robot, including a ‘roboteer’ who performed live actions in real-time that were communicated to Zeeb Zob, and pre-recorded and programmed gestures.

In “Commedia Robotica”, Zeeb Zob rehearses with an initially reluctant actress for a play-within-a-play: a commedia dell’arte performance. Over time, Zeeb Zob develops romantic feelings for his co-star. When he expresses these feelings, a human engineer waiting in the wings rips out his electronic guts, at which point the actress realizes she’d fallen for the robot, too.

“At what point does a robot, a human-crafted machine, develop its own agency and become a performer? And who’s performing?” Saltz pondered.

The vast majority of robots that have been used in performances, including Saltz’s, have been puppets or automata. But the new generation of robots that Saltz and others are working on will have the capacity to perform autonomously and to learn from their interactions.

“Acting is reacting,” Saltz said. “For me, the holy grail is to create robots that respond dynamically to their environment.”