Cybraphon, a robot with feelings

What would happen if we could make a machine that recognizes emotions? And further, what if we could make a machine that has ‘emotions’?How would ‘it’ communicate and to what effect?

In 2009, the Edinburgh-based, art collective FOUNDcreated the Cybraphon, a musical automaton inspired by the play-pianos of the 19th century. They describe it as an emotional robot band: a big, old wooden display filled with found and repurposed musical instruments. A set of microcontrollers and actuators are controlled by a max-patch custom software. The Cybraphon attends to mention of its name online, whether google searches, media mention, tweets and all the relevant venues of messages. When it gets all of mentions, the robot is happy; if not, well, it gets moody.

A review in a local newspaper, for example, will almost certainly radically change the mood of the installation – and hence the music it plays – soon after it appears. However, Cybraphon is an insecure, egotistical band. A good review will cheer it up in the short term, but once the initial excitement dies down it will soon become disillusioned if its fame does not continue to increase.

An interplay between light and music communicate the feelings of the robot:

A 100 year old galvanometer, visualises the emotional state of the robot – however it is actually the music that gets to you. Happy or sad tunes, evoke the robots feeling; melodies composed by FOUND tailored for the instruments, character and presence of the Cybraphon connecting the digital presence with an expressed emotion. The Cybraphon is now on permanent display at the National Museum of Scotland, a crossover between the digital and the material, the world of electronics and this of re-purposed machines.

The Cybraphon provides an example of linking the digital, the tangible and the auditory together creating not only a machine the responds ’emotionally’ but also a machine we can empathise with. At a first level it is through music and sound, the percussion and brass that set the tune in the room but, at a second level, it is when considering what drives  the machine’s emotions – the need for acknowledgement, attention and care.





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