Music meets machine with Robot Rickhaw: “A rapidly-deployable, human-driven, two wheeled cart full of robots that play music. Piloted by a lunatic in a hazmat suit+teddy bear.”
Created by the brilliant artist and humble human Troy Rogers — this is hands down the geekiest thing going on around town…and it comes to us from Duluth.
Troy, what can you tell us about the inspiration for Robot Rickshaw?
It was all kind of an accident. As far back in 2003 I was working on a sensor + glove based air guitar and started getting into micro controllers. This was pre-arduino time and I was using a platform called Making Things…but I never really got to the inputs, I just started playing with the outputs.
From there, I was reminded of the fact that I was using a MIDI controlled piano, but it was being destroyed by my rapid playing the same note over and over…
So through some failures from those creative experiments and a conversation on solenoids with a friend of mine, I hooked up a pencil, paperclip, rubber-band, and a balloon over a mixing bowl and out came a computer-controlled mechanized drum called PercusBot.
As soon as I brought that percussion ensemble out into the world, people began to see them as these musical robots. Two key collaborations really pushed things forward: at the University of Virginia, I formed Expressive Machines Musical Instruments (EMMI) with fellow composers Steven Kemper and Scott Barton, and we built various instruments together, including AMI and CARI, which are now on the Rickshaw. This collaboration is ongoing whenever we get the chance to meet up and work together.
I also benefited immensely from my time as a Fulbright research fellow in Gent, Belgium, where I worked closely with Godfried-Willem Raes, who has built what is likely the world’s largest robot orchestra, housed in a tetrahedrally shaped concert hall where people dance naked to control the robots at the Logos Foundation. For years that followed, I built up more and more instruments and have toured around the country and Europe with them. I really began to see myself as their caretaker.
Around 2014, I had felt like that effort was becoming constraining…I wanted to get them out there in a different sort of way. When I put them on the cart for the first time and brought them out to the street, I really thought I was just taking them for a walk, but it became clear to me that this was going to become something that I just did.
What do you think led you to adopt this as your thing?
I think with any type of street performance, you connect with people differently than you otherwise would normally.
Putting the performance outside of its previous context changed the way that people responded, it was enthusiastically received. It allowed me to combine the music with technology in sort of this absurd art performance. And the venues really started opening up for us.
The state of musical robotics at large is still a very primitive pursuit. Most of the people using robots for musical performances are either doing so at large research facilities or being funded by large companies. But there’s oher early adopters and artists like Bjork, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin,
How did the Robot Rickshaw land in Duluth?
I am from The Iron Range originally, and I moved back to Duluth from grad school in Virginia. I was within grasp of a Phd, but realized that the academic job prospects were not going to allow me to do what I wanted to do. Geographically, there’s just nowhere else I would rather be.
I came back to Minnesota in 2014 and I don’t think that is a total coincidence…the setting here provides a great venue for the robots along the lake. Making these instruments robust enough and testing them in a harsh environment is all part of the experiment.
What do you see as your connection to the robots?
I am the designer, builder, maintainer, chief experimenter, roadie, manager, and driver. The robots are my connection to a larger musical sphere because it’s a platform that I work with other musicians on.
Who is in the band?
The Rickshaw in mobile street mode has three main components, and sometimes a fourth vocal. The guitar robot, the clarinet robot, and the drumming robot Ape Shit — and their functions are encoded into their names:
Stemmetje (Dutch for “little voice) – singing vocal robot
AMI (Automatic Monochord Instrument) – guitar-like monochord developed with EMMI
CARI (Cylindrical Aerophone Robotic Instrument) – clarinet-like robot developed with EMMI
APESHIT (Automatic Percussion Ensemble: Shaking, Hitting, Illuminating Thing) – drumming robots
Then there is a brass section in the works as I am in the process of automating a sousaphone, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet, a slide trombone, and a piano. I think I am going to create a new genre called Robot Death Polka.
Do some of them have their own personality characteristics?
Yes…well there are constraints around all of them. An example would be EMMI’s first robotic instrument—a monochord named PAM, which is very much like AMI. Basically everything on them was the same but the configuration was different because AMI was designed to be more portable. But these slight differences completely change the expressive character of the instruments, especially visually, but also sonically. AMI was designed as a kind of PAM 2.0, but they have entirely different personalities.
And how about the technology?
I’ve developed a custom arduino variant which powers the guts of the bots. The custom design is done using CAD software, with laser cutting and 3D printing. I am a long time user of Max/MSP but I am experimenting with the open source version on Raspberry Pi.
I’m thinking of ditching the laptop and making strides towards that in the future.
How do your inputs create the outputs?
Currently, it’s all done via laptop interface. The algorithms that I am developing and using are merely extensions of my own composition predilection. I view it as navigating a parametric space, highlighting areas along the way.
Sometimes I am looking at the bots as bandmates and they may be sequenced, maybe completely deterministically. There is always a lot of randomness though, sometimes a goal seeking behavior, sometimes they are listening to and working with one-another in this sonic ecosystem.
I have been developing this system to human-machine interactions where there is some steering involved, but it pushes back against the composer and performers too.
Are two songs ever the same?
No…even if you were to use the same exact input, it wouldn’t be. Further complicating things is that the robots can listen to themselves and adapt, almost like a recursive improvisation.
I am using Markov chains and sometimes genetic algorithms, so a melody may evolve from one starting point to a goal point, and the populations along the way become selected variants of the melody. What’s happening across the board is pretty simple.
Could the band perform on its own?
Yes, it can, already. When I started, actually, I was trying to be as far away as possible, but became drawn to integrating myself and other musicians into the improvisational experience.
What is your emotional connection to the Rickshaw?
I think that it’s common and normal for people to impart their agency upon the world, whether it’s a pet, or a machine, etc. Because I created them, because I know them inside and out, because I maintain them, build new appendages, and dream in their sounds — my connection is deeply personal. It’s already morphed so many times, my understanding what I think it is.
Making music with robots is something that I’m taking into schools, starting here in Duluth. Kids can come in and without any prior experience build a robot and program it’s sounds.
How do you finance and sustain the Rickshaw?
For 2-3 years I did this full time, though sometimes fall back into part time/temporary work to support the exploration of this territory. There’s a lot of time and energy that goes into this, as you would imagine.
What is the future for Robot Rickshaw?
Some of the things I am working on now will veer into wearing robots, and more of a cyborg real. I am coding my own decisions into the algorithms in a way that will transcend much of what a human performer could do. Using a laptop is becoming less and less tenable, so having agents operating on multiple devices will mean a different distribution.
Teaching others about the Robot Rickshaw, through the Robot Rickshaw has really become more important. I used to manly teach university level students, but have found joy exposing kids ages 6-10 is part of making the most of this and thinking about the future.
Would you like to add anything?
I think it’s really important for artists themselves be involved in the creation of technology so that it’s not all about making the most money or the designing best killing machine.
And it’s time to start thinking about a plan B…maybe there’s some hope of putting a band of musical robots into the void of interstellar space to preserve some imperfect and partial capsule of human musicality for the robotic remnants of other failed planets.
How can people connect with you?