How a quantum physicist taught a cobot to dance

How a quantum physicist taught a cobot to dance article image

At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr Merritt Moore didn’t realize that her only dance partner for the foreseeable future would be a cobot. But this didn’t stop her from turning the world of dance on its head and creating beautiful and unique performances with her new robot partner …

Originally from Los Angeles and now living in London, to many it would seem that Dr Moore has a very unconventional background.

She has carved out a career as a professional ballet dancer with the Norwegian National Ballet, English National Ballet and Boston Ballet. Yet she has also made waves as a quantum physicist, undergone astronaut training and earned a PhD in atomic and laser physics from the University of Oxford.

Whilst some people told her that she would have to make a choice between the two disciplines, for Dr Moore, blurring the lines between arts and science comes naturally. In her opinion her creative endeavours directly inform the fresh ideas she can bring to her work in STEM.

“There are so many rigid stereotypes of what a dancer or a scientist should be, and this can be really damaging for both disciplines,” she says.

“For scientists and engineers, creativity is key in finding new solutions to problems. For dancers, the ability to be technical and analytical can take your practice to the next level.

“I hope that the next generation of women will be inspired to defy expectations of how a career in STEM should look.

Pas de deux with a Universal cobot

A remarkable example of how Dr Moore herself defied those expectations in more interdisciplinary ways than anyone could imagine, is her pas de deux with a UR10e cobot, named “Baryshnibot” by her Instagram followers.

The unusual partnership began in Oslo where Merritt was performing Swan Lake and La Bayadere with the Norwegian National Ballet. Through mutual friends she randomly met Silje Gabrielsen, senior designer and cofounder of Hiro Futures, a human-robot interaction start-up based in the Norwegian capital. “We research artificial social skills in robotics,” says Gabrielsen.

“One of our focus areas is how we foster better collaboration between humans and robots.

“Today’s robots are still lacking several skills to properly collaborate in non-industrial settings. Instead of simply using a screen or additional hardware to communicate and interact with humans, we want to use a more intuitive communication system; body language.” she explains.  

‘I was hooked’

When she heard that Dr Moore was both a professional ballet dancer and an astrophysicist with a keen interest in robotics, she felt there was a perfect match.

“We both thought this would be an amazing opportunity to explore these interactions and movements further,” says the Norwegian designer who first loaned Dr Moore the agency’s own UR5e robot and then through a UR distributor helped her borrow the larger UR10e robot with more reach.

“I was hooked,” says Dr Moore. “On weekends, after rehearsals and in between shows, I would work with the robot exploring movement.”

Her work caught the interest of the new ArtLab at Harvard University in Boston that invited her to be one of their first artists-in-residence to explore this research further.How a quantum physicist taught a cobot to dance2

Keeping up with complex dance moves

“This was right before lockdown (Jan-Feb 2020),” she says.

“When the lockdown happened, I did think it was interesting that I was just working with robots. Who knew that a robot could be my only potential dance partner for a very long time?’ And here we are.”

Whilst Baryshnibot was originally designed for repetitive industrial automation tasks, Dr Moore has worked hard to ensure that the collaborative robot (cobot) could keep up with her complex dance moves.

“I chose a cobot from Universal Robots as I needed a machine with the ability to react safely and intuitively to human movement. It’s also great that the robot is so easy to re-program, which has made it simple for me to teach it new dances and styles relatively quickly.

“The cobot usually performs tasks with simple, repetitive movements such as screwdriving and sanding, so I had to think of ways to get the movements to line up perfectly with human movements.”

Dr Moore has been working in a studio space provided by The Koppel Project.

Next, she will be taking her performance to a central London gallery space and livestreaming the event for the public.

This article was first published by Universal Robots.



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