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Wearable AI to Render Drummers Obsolete

A device in development at the University of Chicago nudges your muscles into the exact actions needed to keep a beat — and plenty more.

Imagine downloading an app that lets you immediately bang out a drum solo worthy of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not as far off as you might think. Researchers at the new University of Chicago Human Computer Integration Lab are working on a wearable device that nudges your muscles into the exact actions needed to pull off that and other feats. Lab chief Pedro Lopes says it has already allowed users to drum out basic rhythms and to peel avocados. But the potential applications aren’t just about transforming you into an overnight rock star or super-efficient sous chef. For example, the device could one day help physical therapy patients execute exercises more effectively. And Lopes, along with researchers at Keio University in Tokyo, is testing to see if it can enable people to perform tasks even after it’s removed (thanks to muscle memory). Here’s how it works for drumming:

Illustration by Colin Hayes
Illustration: Colin Hayes

1. The device is strapped to your arm like a cellphone armband. It has been programmed to contract muscles in a particular rhythm, direction, and speed.

2. Four electrodes are attached to your forearm, close to the elbow, to send painless electrical impulses through the skin to two muscles that control the wrist’s flex and extension.

3. Once you’re seated at a drum pad, sticks in hand, researchers activate the sequence and — voilà! — you’re the kid in Whiplash. (At its top end, its speed can match the world’s fastest drummers.) If you move your wrist against the direction of stimulation, the device stops immediately. “We want people to feel a sense of control,” Lopes says. “We’re not interested in creating cyborgs.”

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