Two years ago, Jason Barnes lost part of his right arm in a freak accident after being electrocuted while cleaning a vent in a restaurant. A keen drummer at the time of the accident, he refused to give up his hobby – and now he's got a robot arm.
Initially, Barnes built a simple contraption out of springs to help him realise his dream of playing music. He enrolled at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media where he piqued the attention of Eric Sanders, who thought he knew someone who could build something better.
He introduced him to Gil Weinberg at the Georgia Institute of Technology, whose laboratory has previously built musical machines like the robot drummer Haile and the marimba-playing Shimon. Both are improvisational machines that can respond sensitively to human playing.
Barnes' prosthesis uses a technique called electromyography. It picks up on electrical signals in the upper arm muscles; so when Barnes tenses his biceps, a small motor defines how tightly the robot arm grips the drumstick and how fast it moves – essential for any drummer.
The team then added a second drumstick that uses a microphone and accelerometer to gauge the rhythm that Barnes is playing (or any music from nearby musicians) and then produces a complimentary beat, an algorithm modelled on the work of jazz greats such as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
Man and machine combine to make a superhuman drummer, raising interesting questions about the role of machines in music. Do you think that in our lifetimes we'll be appreciating canons of work by man-made robots? Give me a robot rapper over 50 Cent any day.
Watch the video of Barnes and his prosthetic arm in action below, and remember – don't give up on your dreams, kids.