Design Engineering

Robot drummer Mortimer plays in epic jam session with human musicians


Automation Robot

Scientists developed a drumming robot that can play along with human keyboard players and posts pictures of the sessions on Facebook.

More and more, robots are becoming part of our everyday life. So it’s not surprising that researchers are pushing the boundaries of robotic capability.

Mortimer drumming robot

Mortimer and Louis McCallum. Photo credit: QMUL

In this latest attempt, scientists developed a drumming robot that can keep up and play along with human keyboard players. The robot is then capable of posting  pictures of the sessions on Facebook.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have developed a study to look at how humans interact with robots over time and in particular how social media can enhance that relationship.

One of the challenges the team faced was developing a relation between human and the robot that offers both long term engagement and a feeling of believability/social presence towards the robot. And according to the researchers, one way to do this is through music. The team developed a robotic drummer, called Mortimer, who is able to compose music responsively to human pianists in real-time.


In order to trigger that sense of believability, Mortimer was also designed to take pictures during sessions and post them to Facebook. The robot can also comment and tag other people in the picture.

“We’d previously uncovered new and exciting findings that suggested open-ended creative activities could be a strong bedrock to build long-term human-robot relationships,” says lead author Louis McCallum, from Queen Mary’s School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. According to McCallum the research hoped to explore whether the relationships that were initially developed face-to-face, but under lab conditions, could be extended to the more open, but virtual, realm of social media.

The study consisted of two groups of participants. One group was sent a Facebook friend request from Mortimer— the robot could then tag the participants in pictures taken during the session. The second group was not sent similar requests and had no contact with the robot outside of the sessions.

During the study, participants took part in six weekly sessions in a controlled studio environment and were instructed to stay for a minimum of 20 minutes but could optionally stay for up to 45. Each participant was greeted by Mortimer — communicating through speech synthesis software — and used a tablet to interact with him.

During each session, a webcam in the lab took a picture of Mortimer and the participant playing and an accompanying comment was generated. The participants also took a selfie with Mortimer and posted it to their own Facebook accounts. Interestingly, the data shows there were considerably more ‘likes’ for posts made by a user as opposed to one of Mortimer’s posts that the user was tagged in.

“Posts by human participants about the music sessions between them carried significantly more weight within their networks than posts by the robot itself,” explains Dr McCallum. “This suggests a discerning approach to generated posts that is especially relevant in today’s world of social media bots, automated content and fake news.”

The researchers found that the time spent with the robot increased over the study but session length for the group who were Facebook friends with Mortimer reduced over time. They suggest this may be because the participants had additional contact with Mortimer outside the sessions.

The study was published in IEEE Transactions on Cognitive and Developmental Systems.


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