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U-M Museum of Art brings robots to the art world

By Safiya Merchant

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ANN ARBOR—Can a conversation with a robot actually make you think differently about art or the people who created it? 

That’s one of the many questions faculty, staff and students from the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the U-M College of Engineering’s Robotics Institute are answering as they embark on a new initiative to develop a robot that can act naturally with visitors and execute interactive conversations that encourage guests’ curiosity about art.

A team of students, staff and faculty from Michigan Robotics and the U-M Museum of Art pose with a prototype of a robot they’ve been testing over the past several months. Photo by Mark Gjukich.

By merging engineering technology with the humanities, the collaboration aims to showcase how “museums can be interdisciplinary research laboratories that push the boundaries of scientific discovery.”

Still in design stages, project members are working to ensure the robot can navigate autonomously throughout the museum and abide by social norms, such as weaving around a group of people instead of cutting through them, said Jessie Yang, assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering and of information. 

They’re also working to figure out how a robot might communicate with a museum guest, incorporating language and communication tactics that a docent might use. In the world of art museums, docents often act as the liaison between art and guests, providing additional information and context about artworks.

At UMMA, docents welcome and determine entry points for visitors to explore the art museum. When docents give tours for smaller groups or individuals, they tailor these tours to the visitors’ needs by assessing the background of the guest and customizing a response based on the person’s desires, interest levels and questions.

Grace VanderVliet, interim curator for museum teaching and learning, said the goal is to research how to develop a robot that can mirror the custom responses of a docent by assessing where the visitor is coming from and then creating an art museum experience based on that initial survey.

“We want the robot to provide not only information, but to raise more questions for the visitor and provide a deeper experience than they would have had if they had just been in the museum by themselves,” VanderVliet said.

John Turner, UMMA’s senior manager of museum technology, said that although no one wants to replace human docents with robots, the project has larger implications for how the museum can facilitate societal learning.

“I think what we’re really trying to do is figure out how humanities-based collecting organizations like museums can become central research hubs for engineering projects more relevant to society at large,” Turner said. “The information that we’re going to learn from how this robot interacts and assesses humans based on their behavior and what they say is going to be able to be built upon for other environments and contexts outside of the museum.”

While robots won’t be taking over the halls of UMMA any time soon, the research experiment is giving museum staff the opportunity to reflect on how they interact with visitors and if there are ways they can enhance that process, said Natalie Vasher, UMMA’s director of partnerships and chief of staff.

“While this project gives us a view into how machines can interact with people, it also helps us reflect on how we as humans are approaching people as well,” she said.

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