At Brown, innovative course explores ‘responsible robotics’

Susan R. Jones

Those introductory safety sessions were key for Abby Perelman, a lifelong dancer who concentrated in cognitive neuroscience and data fluency, graduating in May.  

Outside of Choreorobotics, Perelman spent part of the spring semester conducting research on creating a wearable device that could track symptoms in Parkinson’s disease patients, allowing doctors to provide them with better care. Together, the course and her research provided extensive food for thought about how to create technology that makes a positive impact — and how to ensure that that technology isn’t used for nefarious purposes. 

Perelman had never programmed a robot before — but with Rosen’s assistance, she felt free to try and fail.

“It’s a space for people to explore and try and possibly fail and watch your robot fall over and laugh,” Perelman said. “I’ve never taken a class like this before where we’re all just coming together from our vastly different perspectives and disciplines and learning and trying together.”

Skybetter admitted the course was as much a learning opportunity for the instructors as it was for the students. The course was his first attempt at translating his research initiative, the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces, into an applied learning experience involving robots. But with CRCI poised to broaden its reach as a growing initiative within the Brown Arts Institute, he believes it’s the first of many. Skybetter is already working with Nora Ayanian and Stefanie Tellex, two faculty members in the Department of Computer Science, on a 2023 or 2024 course that focuses on drone swarms — their development, their history in military operations and the performing arts, and their potential to inflict harm and do good.

Navaiya Williams, who just completed her first year at Brown and is double concentrating in computer science and theater, might enroll next year. Williams, who grew up performing and participated in robotics courses in high school, had no idea what to expect when she set foot in Choreorobotics 0101 in January — but, she said, the course was a pleasant surprise.

“When I tell people I’m double concentrating in computer science and theater, they say, ‘What are you going to do with that?’” Williams said. “And to be honest, I didn’t know what to tell them — theater and CS always seemed so different and unrelated. But this class showed me avenues I didn’t know existed before, where I can use both subjects in really creative, meaningful ways. It has me thinking about new possibilities for careers related to cybersecurity and virtual reality.”

Williams must have been listening between the lines when Skybetter, on one March day, guided students through a movement exercise inside the Ashamu Dance Studio at Brown. Lying with students on the floor, he asked them to think about their physical movements before actually moving. Consider, he directed, the muscular apparatus required to lift a hand and point a finger — the pectoral tensing, the metacarpal engagement. Be attuned, he said, to the difference between the pre-perception of the movement and the feeling of the movement itself.

“Take this weird time, in this weird studio, in this weird class, on this weird plastic floor, to try weird movements,” Skybetter said. “Try and make choices that you haven’t made before.”

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