Cyborg drummer able to establish ‘intimate connections’ and play with the dead

By Scott Kaufman
Thursday, April 10, 2014 7:54 EDT
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A drummer who lost his right hand in a freak accident debuted his new cyborg arm at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology over the weekend.

In 2012, while working on the roof of a restaurant, Jason Barnes was so severely electrocuted that doctors needed to amputate his hand. After the amputation, Barnes built a makeshift “drumming hand” out of wrist brace and some strings and performed well enough to enroll at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.

Once there, drum instructor Eric Sanders introduced him to Gil Weinberg of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the three formulated a plan to build Barnes an arm that would not only restore the functionality of his lost hand, but — potentially — allow him to play even better.

The prosthetic allows Barnes to control his grip on one drumstick by flexing the muscles in his bicep, but it also sports a second, autonomous drumstick controlled by a drum-playing algorithm that possesses the ability to improvise accompanying beats in the style of musicians like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

“In some cases, we were able to create some surprises, with music that cannot be created by humans alone,” Weinberg told The New Scientist in March. “The next interesting step is to see what happens when you are part of the robot and the robot is part of you.”

At the event, Weinberg said that he wants to see “what happens when the intimate connections that can be created between human and robots was not separate.”

One of the “intimate connections” Weinberg described having “created” is between Barnes and the physicist Richard Feynman, who was also a drummer. A correspondent had recordings of Feynman playing, so Weinberg and his team of engineers uploaded them into the algorithm controlling Barnes’s cyborg drumstick, allowing him “play” with Feynman, who died in 1988.

Watch drummer Jason Barnes discuss the creation of his arm, as well as perform, below.

Scott Kaufman
Scott Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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