Photograph by Jeff Lieberman

Want robots to be musical, creative, and expressive? Better brush up on your engineering. Musician/ roboticists Dan Paluska and Jeff Lieberman constructed a web-connected “robotic mechanical orchestra” that plays a marimba by firing rubber balls out of a cannon, strikes traditional percussion instruments, and also rubs mechanical fingers along wine glasses. The machine, Absolut Quartet, uses artificial intelligence to creatively riff on melodies composed remotely by users on the web.

“At the core, the machine is just motors, metal, and software,” say the MI T alums. “However, the design of these elements gives the whole machine a ‘personality’ and this is what allows a creative dialog to exist between the machine and the online user.”

Of course, that dialog can’t just work once — it has to work over and over again. The guys wanted the technology to “disappear,” leaving a purely creative experience. But that meant making 3,000 custom parts and 10,000 stock parts work in harmony.

And then there are the 500,000 custom rubber balls firing a 4-meter arc onto the keys.

“For any reasonable maintenance, this can only fail roughly 1 in 10,000 times,” the duo explains. They tried four fundamentally different shooting mechanisms before they found one that worked — springs and a rotating arm.

They then consulted an engineer to settle on magical, maintenance-solving ingredients such as polyethylene glycol dimethacrylate, which they used to make the suede fingers resonant. But they also needed the skills of a professional glass harpist so they could get 35 tuned wine glasses.

“Being both musicians and roboticists, we have always been interested in combinations of the two,” say Paluska and Lieberman. In the finished work, centuries-old percussion and glass armonicas meet modern industrial robotics. Musician/inventor Benjamin Franklin, who built the first glass armonica, would have been proud.

>> Absolut Quartet:

>> The Build:

From the column Made on EarthMAKE 14, page 18 – Peter Kirn.