Can a robot act human and stir emotions? The answer is yes. This was proved by the sensational “Man vs Machine” interval act in the second semi-final of Eurovision Song Contest 2016, which was performed by three robots and three dancers.
“It turned out to be a tougher challenge than I thought. But thanks to the solution-oriented, great people from KUKA, we got it all sorted out in time,” enthuses choreographer Fredrik Benke Rydman.
Man vs Machine was seen live by an audience of some 10,000 in the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden and by millions of television viewers around the world.
“My idea was to test whether humans could be affected by the movements and behavior of robots. In fact, the machines were actually able to arouse feelings in the viewers. This was revealed by the massive response from audiences who told us the show was awesome,” says Benke (the choreographer’s artist name).
On stage, three KR16-3-series robots from the robotics company KUKA performed with three dancers, including Anton Borgström, one of Sweden’s popping and tutting stars. In some sequences, the machines were moving in synch with each other and the dancers, in others they dance-battled with the dancers and vice versa. Or they freestyled and did their own thing. Seeing one of the robots peel a banana and handing it to the lead dancer, and later in this amazing act, letting its “face” be patted, stirred an emotional response in many viewers.
“If robots can touch our hearts with their “moves”, industrial robots that don’t look human at all, will that make us humans dispensable in the future? An interesting question. And what are the ethical implications?”, Benke reflects further.
The choreographer, project managers from the Swedish national broadcaster and KUKA Nordic AB employees in Gothenburg faced some tough challenges to get the technical side of things in place. How were these heavy robots going to make their entrance on stage? How would they be powered? How to program them so their movements would be as human as possible?
“It was trickier than I thought. But since the guys at KUKA came with a can do attitude and a full focus on solving the challenges at hand it all came together in time to go on air”, says Benke.
The hardest part was resolving the safety issues.
“Obviously, it was safety first. Initially I had my doubts when I heard the safety clearance required, since this was going to make it harder to create that close man-machine interaction,” Benke explains.
But after slogging away until late evening for days on end, he and KUKA engineer Benjamin Lundgren finally had a convincing and safe choreography.
“Benjamin is the genius who masterminded the funky moves for the clunky robots. And his boss Conny was the one who resolved the safety concerns. Her dedication was humbling,” says Emma Bergström, project manager for the Swedish Eurovision broadcaster.
Initially, she and her colleague Josefin Bergqvist were collaborating with another robotics manufacturer, but that firm signed off after two months. That gave KUKA just a few weeks.
“That was such a downer, but then KUKA was recommended to us. From when we got in touch with their CEO (KUKA Nordic) Jonas Glimdén and his upbeat employees, we were on a roll. I should point out that this collaboration was far from run-of-the-mill! But next time I need a robot, I’ll know who to call”, says Emma Bergström.
She also picked up on the amazing reactions to the act.
"Everything we’ve heard, read and had mailed to us says the same: ‘unique, new, awesome, cool’. And people are watching it over and over!”
Jonas Glimdén, CEO at KUKA Nordic AB, has no regrets about the company coming on board the project at short notice.
“It was a real thrill to have this opportunity to position an existing product in a new context. And a real kick to be involved in something outside of our usual arena. The project also shows where robotics R&D is at now, with man and machine interacting more and more,” he says.
Choreographer Benke summed up the project and the show’s impacts nicely.
“Marrying the arts and technology can be highly productive!”