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AI Lab’s COG Plays Drums with TMBG

By Zareena Hussain

What could They Might Be Giants, ABC’s Nightline, and MIT’s Artificial Intelligience Lab possibly all have in common? The COG robot turned drummer of course.

COG, a project dating back six years, represents an early foray into the realm of artificial intelligience. Principal Investigator and AI Lab director Rodney Brooks came up with the name for COG as a take off on both the cogs in machines and as an abbreviation for ‘cognitive.’

For the past few weeks, researchers in the AI lab have been working to teach COG how to drum in preparation for a music video directed by John Flansberg, one half of the original TMBG duo, that will be aired in conjunction with a Nightline-affiliated documentary series on technology to be aired this summer. Flansberg came to campus this weekend to film COG for the video. The video included a sort of “drum-duel” between COG and TMBG drummer Dan Hickey.

“I can’t tell you who won,” Flansberg said, although he did say that the video will include a dialogue in which Flansberg and TMBG partner John Linnell disagree about the winner.

The video featuring COG is the second of five that the group will be writing for the documentary series tentatively titled “Brave New World.” The series’ producers have asked several music groups, including TMBG, to write songs for the documentaries in order to include an artist’s or performer’s, as opposed to a journalist’s, take on subjects as diverse as human cloning and AI.

But even Flansberg admitted that it was difficult to capture what is interesting about COG in a such a general interest piece

“It’s very difficult to illustrate visually,” Flansberg said, and “might be predestined to be misunderstood.”

About how it felt to jam with a robot, Hickey replied, “It’s an experience like I never had before. It’s really fun, it’s interesting.”

Drumming part of COG research

Teaching COG how to drum was an extension of existing research into expanding the realm of COG’s capabilities.

Matthew M. Williamson G, has been working on developing the action of COG’s arm in a way that exploits its natural dynamics in the same way the human arm exploits its own dynamics. Williams developed programs that control COG’s arm modeled on two biological neurons that control the human arm. Acting as oscillators they can entrain themselves to synchronize with audio imput.

The researchers enabled COG to synchronize his drumming with simple audio input and attempted to program COG to create more complex rhythms.

“We started writing software to do a more extensive beat analysis,” said Matthew J. Marjanovic G, who has been working with COG since he was an undergraduate at MIT, and “to use that as an input to the drumming oscillator. Although that part didn’t exactly work.”

COG is already able to perform some basic motor skills, such as reaching out to different points in space. COG also has primitive visual and auditory sensory capabilities.