Brown CS Blog

Bot Quite Sure

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by Madeline Greenberg

My name is Madeline Greenberg and I am the Project Manager for ‘Choreorobotics 0101’ – the first course to be cross-listed across the TAPS and CS departments. I have been organizing the Choreorobotics Initiative at Brown for the past six months, corralling teams of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff as we work to develop the course’s curriculum. 

Choreorobotics is novel. What that means is that we don’t know what we’re doing. We are each experts, incredibly competent and hard working in various fields including but not limited to choreographics and robotics, but we’re entirely making this up as we go along. 

What that necessitates is a day to day that is frankly anything but reliable, a love for organizational systems, and a lot of broken robots. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t mean to break the robots, but when you are doing unprecedented things, often there are some machinic casualties. 

My day usually starts with a traffic meeting. Often my dreams are about robot sheep. I wake up to work in the miro board that outlines the Choreorobotics class, and then break down the nine million things that need to get done over the course of the day.  

I make a detailed list. Some of my favorite items that we have had to talk through recently – who owns the intellectual property of our 3D printed robot parts, how are we (as performance studies and choreography nerds) going to learn about what robot parts we need, and can we play with the Atari game system that is currently set up in the lab?

And the lab is the best part. Slightly marked up walls, whiteboards covered in expo-markered math, random drone pieces thrown across tables and two couches that sit in the middle of everything. I didn’t even mention any of the robots that also litter the room in their slightly humming ineptitude. The lab is on the first floor of the CIT and the lights turn off if you don’t move around often enough. It’s everything that I was trained to want from my obsession with science fiction movies. 

By the time that I have asked my boss and mentor, Sydney Skybetter, twenty to thirty relevant questions, the team of Brown undergraduate, graduate students, faculty, and staff have arrived in the lab. They are amazing nerds, game to try anything, dedicated, and often tolerant (if not appreciative) of my robotics puns. Khosrow Arian; Zabari Ross; Ivery Chen; our Data Science Fellow, Danielle Rosenblit; the graduate student and co-professor for the course, Eric Rosen; Sydney; and I hang out on the strangely placed couches. This list leaves out, though acknowledges, the ever-expanding hardware team as well. 

We’re a group of interdisciplinary, slightly insane wonderful humans. We are sure that the work that we are doing is going to be foundational to the emergent field of Choreorobotics. We are stress-testing robots in such a way that they become more competent and more fluid. We are identifying vocabularies that span across dance history and computer science. We are developing the robotic sensorium – imagining beat detection softwares, playing with the Boston Dynamics’ Spot software development kit, and refining daily the first ever course that will be cross-listed across TAPS and CS in the Spring of 2022. 

My day is just beginning, but the point here is that there is a system in place. A system that, though I hate this metaphor, is a plane flying in the air as it is being built. And I’m project managing the whole thing. If this plane nosedives, it’s going to be my architectural eye towards exactitude that saves the downward spiral. I’m capturing every iteration that our syllabus goes through, managing the undergraduates’ interests, making sure that the co-professors have everything they need, and I haven’t even mentioned our Artist in Residency program. 

The work is hectic and lovely, mind-boggling, and exciting. We are constantly doing things that I never would have imagined that I would do as a performance studies researcher, artist, producer, and now project manager for the Choreorobotics Initiative. 

All to say, we don’t know what we’re doing, we have no idea what happens next, but we are doing it anyway. We are figuring out systems that haven’t existed before. We are imagining a future where robots dance the Macarena, know how to bourree, and are broken in ways that body experts, choreographers, dancers, and performance artists know best. 

We have our own form of expertise. An expertise in not knowing, in making it up as we go along, and trusting each other, our robots, and our programming enough to see Choreorobotics as a field come to fruition.

For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication and Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.