Shimon and Pals to Jam With Other Musical Robots

Gil Weinberg, Zach Kondak, and Shimon perform in the Speelklok Museum in the Netherlands.

By Malrey Head Atlanta, GA


Shimon, the marimba-playing robot, is in the Netherlands this month.

He is part of the exhibition “Robots Love Music” at the Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The exhibit is designed to reveal “that historical and modern-day robots not only have a brain, but also have a heart!” the museum website says.

For visitors, “Cheerful live music will surround you from centuries-old self-playing musical instruments. The history of these instruments started back in 16th century in the Netherlands with the use of church carillons.”

Shimon and pals will join these instruments in the exhibit. Besides playing the marimba, Shimon can understand and collaborate with his human counterparts, and he also has learned to compose his own music.

Marian van Dijk, museum director, said she learned about Shimon from a friend who had seen the robot on a video.

“Being a musician myself, I was intrigued and realized this was the next step in development of self-playing instruments, having a robot that could program itself. That's how the idea was born to connect historic instruments and new robotics,” she said.

“We want to point at the positive side of artificial intelligence; with the help of music we want to ask visitors how they valuate the creativity of robots. Shimon is not only a very good musician, he also communicates. That makes the question whether robots are capable of transmitting emotions actual,” said van Dijk, who has advanced degrees in music and musicology as well as museology.

The museum reached out to Gil Weinberg, the creator of Shimon and director of the Center for Music Technology at Georgia Tech, about being a part of the exhibit.

Weinberg, also a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Music, called the Speelklok Museum, “one of the most unique museums in the world, with its focus on self-playing musical instruments. It is therefore very exciting that they chose Shimon, Shimi, and the prosthetic drumming arm to be featured at the center of their ‘Robots Love Music’ exhibition.”

The robots will be at the museum from September 20 until December 2. On September 26, Weinberg will give a concert with Shimon and other musicians.
“It is great the people from all over Europe, and the world, will be able to experience Shimon, but it will surely be difficult for us here at the Robotic Musicianship group at Georgia Tech to be separated from our robots for that long,” he said.

Traveling with Shimon and the other robots are Weinberg (left in above photo), Zach Kondak (right), a recent grad of the School of Music in the College of Design, who is staying with Shimon and giving daily demonstrations. Also traveling with the group is Richard Savery, a Ph.D. student in the Center and the School of Music.

Getting Shimon to the Netherlands is not easy. He is 7 feet wide and 5 feet tall. Shimi and the prosthetic arm are smaller.

Shimon is mainly comprised of three parts. The head, hands, and the marimba. All the parts are packed into three approximately 4-foot by 6-foot black boxes. Shimon's computer and all the other equipment is all packed into a 3- by 3-foot box.

At least two people are needed to load and unload Shimon because he is heavy. After he is transferred into boxes, he is loaded onto a truck and moved to the airport to fly.

And that is just the physical move.

“We have to deal with contracting, international shipping, insurance, and setup logistics. We would like to thank GTRC, the Office of Research Integrity Assurance, and Legal Affairs for helping us navigating through this,” Weinberg said.

Shimon is not new to travel. The robot has performed with human musicians in dozens of concerts and festivals from DLD in Munich, Germany, to the U.S. Science Festival in Washington, D.C., to the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, and Google IO in San Francisco. He also has performed over video-link at conferences, such as SIGGRAPH Asia in Tokyo, the Supercomputing Conference in New Orleans, and International Jazz Day at the United Nations in New York City.