In 2012, drummer Jason Barnes was cleaning an exhaust duct when he was electrocuted by 22,000 volts. The accident left the blood supply to his right hand completely destroyed, and after seven surgeries, he made the heart-wrenching decision to amputate. While Barnes believed the operation would mark the end of his musical career, Gil Weinberg, a professor of musical technology at Georgia Tech, had other plans. Together, the pair developed a robotic arm that could give Barnes his life back.
The device relies on electromyography, meaning it takes direction from the electrical signals produced by Barnes’ muscles. Any tension in the upper arm activates and controls a small motor, which in turn handles the motion of the drumsticks.
“When I was in the hospital after my surgery, I thought, ‘you’re not playing drums anymore. You’re not playing guitar anymore.’ All those things thrown at me at one time – they weighed down heavy,” recalls Barnes. “But you can only stay depressed for so long. There’s really no other option besides taking what you have and doing something with it.”
Having already begun tinkering with his own makeshift prosthetics, Barnes reached out to Georgia Tech after coming across Weinberg’s creation, “Shimon,” a marimba-playing robot that uses artificial intelligence and creativity algorithms to listen to, understand, and collaborate with human musicians. “Jason wanted to be able to control the grip on the stick,” explains Weinberg. “Which is very important for drummers. I saw the potential. I knew we could really make something of this [project].”
Taking cues from Shimon’s AI, Weinberg and his team designed an arm that would not only let Barnes match the skill of an able-bodied drummer with adjustable grip, but also to surpass it by holding two drumsticks at once.
While one stick on the prosthesis responds to Barnes’ physical cues, a second autonomous stick uses a microphone and an accelerometer to sense the rhythm Barnes is playing, and improvises along with it. “The interesting thing is to look at what happens when you are part of the robot, and the robot is part of you,” says Weinberg. “The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg.” This single-hand, double drumming also means that Barnes can play faster than any other musician.
“Some people look at me and ask, ‘are you evil?,'” jokes Weinberg. “But the answer is a huge ‘no.’ My robots exist to inspire humans. To push them to new levels, not to replace them. Without the accident, Barnes and I probably wouldn’t have met. But now we are gigging buddies, and travel around the world playing shows. When you combine human emotion with robots that are able to play with computational power, there can be a spark of such amazing music.”
The only logical next step is a jam session between Barnes, Shimon, and Def Leopard’s infamous one-armed drummer, Rick Allen. Let the music gods hear our prayers. For more photos of the project, head to the gallery below. You can catch the band’s latest performance here (starting at 39:25).
IMAGES: Georgia Institute of Technology: Shimon Robot/Facebook