Michael Krzyzaniak used to compose symphonies and operas. Then he started working more digitally, and now he is creating the musical robot Dr. Squiggles. “I consider it a kind of meta-composing. Rather than composing music directly, I make algorithms that can do it,” he explains.

Say hi to the musical robot "Dr. Squiggles"

It can tap rhythms, play chimes, and improvise its own music. The robot’s inventor, Michael Krzyzaniak, believes that Dr. Squiggles may increase amateur musicians’ enjoyment of music.

Are you fond of music, and would you like someone to play with? Perhaps a robot?

Eventually, you might find pleasure in Michael Joseph Krzyzaniak’s new invention: a robot that listens, plays and blinks, and keeps you company – in its own mechanical and musical way.

“Playing music has cognitive benefits and health benefits, but we know that many amateur musicians drop out eventually. I thought, maybe I can design a robot that is so irresistible to play with that rather than giving up, people stick with it.”

Krzyzaniak is a researcher at RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion, University of Oslo. He recently presented the interactive robot “Dr. Squiggles” in Make: magazine, a central magazine for people in the maker-movement: people who like to make complicated things out of simple and cheap materials.

Dr. Squiggles's feet can tap rhythms or play melodies, for instance on a metal plate or chimes.

Listens and plays

Krzyzaniak wanted to make a robot that was simple mechanically, but able to exhibit complex behavior. The robot consists of a small computer, a microphone and eight feet. The microphone lets the robot listen. The feet tap the rhythm or play the melody, for instance on a metal plate or chimes.

“The robot is able to listen to music played by a human or another robot, and then join in,” Krzyzaniak says.

This involves a simple kind of machine learning, or artificial intelligence.

“Perhaps in the future the robot will be able to teach you musical skills. When you get better, you will also enjoy playing more. Playing more might make you improve your skills even more, but only if you practice in the right way, and a robot partner could nudge you towards practicing in the right way.”

Organ-playing robot

Studies have suggested that robots can help motivate people to stick with beneficial activities. For instance, Cory David Kidd at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008 investigated whether a robotic weight-loss coach could help people lose weight. He found that people voluntarily interacted with the robot over almost twice as many days as they did with a computer-animation of the robot.

“Within music, there are studies suggesting that systems such as computer software can help people compose. Professional composers hate it; they have more refined ways of composing, but amateur musicians may find it very helpful. It helps bring out creativity,” Krzyzaniak says, adding that these studies do not cover robots specifically.

Even if musical robots today mainly exist in academic circles, they are not entirely new. In the 1980s, for example, Japanese inventors made an organ-playing robot able to read printed music and play it.

Further back in history people have been building musical machines for thousands of years, even in Ancient Greece, according to Krzyzaniak.

“There has always been a tight relationship between music and machines. Today, computers are involved in almost all music that you hear.”

Making the robot cute and fun was a conscious choice, according to Krzyzaniak.

One-eyed octopus

Dr. Squiggles looks like an octopus with a knitted balaclava.

“Originally I was just going to make a boring little box. Then, I figured that it should be cute and fun,” Krzyzaniak explains.

The shape of the robot, its blinking eye, and its colored balaclava are all designed to make the robot seem friendly and adorable.

“It blinks on the beat, which helps the human to stay synchronized with the robot. Having an eye also makes it easier for a human to believe that the robot can make its own choices,” Krzyzaniak says, adding:

“Would two eyes be better? Would that change the way people interact with it? I am currently doing an experiment to figure out how the shape and behavior of the eye affect how much people enjoy the robot.”

Not replacing humans

Loneliness is a common burden among many people. Krzyzaniak gets many questions about whether he is trying to replace human musicians with robots.

“I am trying to make the robots human-like so that playing music with them is similar to playing with a human. However, I imagine the robots will eventually be used by amateur musicians at home in situations where it would not make sense to play with a human,” he explains.

“For example, you might sit down and jam with your robot for 10 minutes while you are waiting for your rice to cook. You would not necessarily invite someone over to your home to do this, so the robot is not replacing a human musical partner. It is just filling in opportunities where there would otherwise be no musical partner at all.”

In Make: magazine Krzyzaniak give readers a recipe on how to build the robot, so that those who are interested can try to do it themselves.

Dr. Squiggles on the market?

Krzyzaniak explains that the intention of Dr. Squiggles is not to become a commercial product as it is today.

“It is a tool that we are using to do the fundamental research that could eventually lead to the development of a separate commercial product,” he says.

He likes to exhibit Dr. Squiggles in museums, such as the Oslo Technical Museum.

“One of the reasons is that it gives the public an opportunity to enjoy the robots in a more controlled environment, where they don't have to worry about the complicated setup and somewhat fragile hardware. Of course, now people can build their own too, either to use themselves, or to use as the basis for further research.”

Videos featuring Dr. Squiggles

Get to know the Dr. Squiggles-robots and learn how they work.

Listen to three robots playing while listening to a person tapping his fingers. When the tapping gets more complex, the robots play music that is more complex. One of them plays the rhythm on a metal plate; the others use their arms to play the chimes.

Listen to the robots playing the organ and Krzyzaniak explaining how it works.

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