Thursday, December 29, 2016

What can robotics community learn from artists with disabilities?

The robotics community aspires to build general purpose robots that can perform complex tasks effortlessly. In reality, we see the current generation of robots struggling to do even simple tasks.

We as roboticists admire human painters that can breathe life into canvasses with few brush strokes and sculptors in whose hands a marble slab melts like butter and an stunning awe-inspiring form emerges. We sigh with envy and hope that someday our robots will be good enough to carve a recognizable shape into the marble without us writing few hundred thousand lines of code.

We often look at human hands and eyes and marvel at the ingenious “design” behind the two. Everything from the available number of degrees of freedom to highly adaptive and high resolution sensing is truly remarkable. Human hands and eyes working in tandem endow artists with impressive hand-eye coordination capabilities that enable them to perform “miracles” and create mesmerizing art.

We compare human hands and eyes with the “clunky” hand designs and “dumb” cameras found in robots of today and resign to the fact that with current robotic hand and vision technologies, we are not going to get too far in terms of mimicking any impressive human feat. Do we need to wait for significantly improved robot hand and perception technology to build more capable robots or can we do better with what we already have?

I have been recently researching art created by artists with different types of disabilities. I am developing a very different perspective on whether the current hand and eye technology limitations are holding back the robotics community.  

I recently was introduced to paintings created by artists with severe visual impairment. A good starting point is “10 Remarkable Paintings by Blind and Visually Impaired Artists”.  This work is truly inspiring. Figures 1 and 2 show two representative paintings.

Figure 1: A painting by 
John Bramblitt (Image Source:

Figure 2: A painting by Eşref Armağan (Image Source:

Doug Landis is paralyzed from the neck down. He holds a pen in his mouth and creates amazing drawings by controlling the pen with his mouth. His art work is called mouth art. Figure 3 shows one of his drawings.

Figure 3: A painting by Doug Landis (Image Source:
These examples show that humans are able to create amazing art despite serious physical handicaps. Something magical happens in the brain and it enables the artist to create amazing art by controlling the available sensing and manipulation modalities. Many years ago Matt Mason told me that "simple hands" are capable of doing quite a bit. My recent explorations seem to support that point of view. We need to develop a better understanding of what minimal sensory and manipulation capabilities are needed to create a piece of art.  

Hopefully, this post will inspire roboticists to stop waiting for the perfect robot hands and eyes. We ought to be able to do better with what we have right now