History of Robotics #8 - Don Cuco el Guapo - Artistry at Work

“The greatest scientists are always artists as well” - Albert Einstein.

You’re at a concert. The stage lights come on and you see a solitary figure standing behind a keyboard. Suddenly, amidst a flash of fingers, you hear one of your favorite songs. You and the rest of the crowd explode into applause. Once the song is over, the spotlight reveals that it’s not a person on stage… it’s a robot.

While most robotic scientists in the 1990s focused on functionality such as mobility, object identification, or programmability, one group dared to think differently. They combined art with robotics in the form of Don Cuco el Guapo (Don Cuco the Good-Looking). Don Cuco is a piano playing 6’5”, 290 pound humanoid robot. He’s played in concerts around the world with legendary bands. Don Cuco el Guapo changed how people thought about robots and art.

In 1992, a group at the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (UAP) in Mexico wanted to build a robot. No group in Mexico had ever built a high-end robot, so they were already breaking new ground. They wanted to do more than just build another Shakey, however. They wanted to build a robot unlike any other the world had seen. The team decided to build a robot that would be an artist and be art, at the same time.

It had been almost a century since Edwin Votey invented the first player-piano, which he called a “Pianola.” As seen in countless Western movies and TV shows, the player-piano performed simple tunes on a stand-up piano. A simple foot-pump powered a spinning spool, which had the “sheet music” on it. The sheet music was simply a perforated piece of paper with 88 possible holes (for the 88 keys on a piano). As the spool spun, air from the foot-pump blew through the holes in the music and pushed a piano key. The result was a piano that “played itself.”

The team at UAP wanted to do more than create a modern player-piano. Their requirements:

  1. The robot had to be a work of art

  2. The robot had to play the piano like a human

  3. The robot had to be able to play music that was not pre-programmed

To create this entirely new type of robot, they assembled a diverse team. In addition to the engineers and computer scientists, they brought in doctors to explain how the human body moves, musicians to explain how to play, and a sculptor to design the body.

Don Cuco el Guapo is still one of the most visually striking robots ever created. Sculptor Gloria Erika Weimer wanted Don Cuco to be human inside and out. First, she created his outer shell out of clear plastic, so you could see inside Don Cuco. Then, she built a circulatory system out of iron and aluminum because Don Cuco had an artist’s heart.

Don Cuco plays piano and keyboard like a human. The robotic engineers built articulated fingers and mobile arms, so he could strike the keys on any piano or keyboard. His head also swivels 28 degrees, so he can read sheet music or just to connect with the crowd.

Finally, Don Cuco can sight-read sheet music and play anything. He has cameras for eyes, and with the ability to move his head, he can take in images of the sheet music. Image processing then enables him to translate the notes on the page into a series of actions for his fingers and hands. Don Cuco does not need a special piano or pre-programmed sheet music. He plays like any expert musician - with his eyes, his brain, and his hands.

The team at UAP decided to call the robot “Don Cuco el Guapo” for two reasons. First, he truly is a “good looking” robot. Second, the word “guapo” contains the string “uap” - the acronym for their university.

Within two years, Don Cuco el Guapo became an international sensation. He played with the legendary band Pink Floyd in front of the King of Spain in 1994. Over the past 30 years, Don Cuco has performed in Latin America and Europe in front of millions of people, and he is still playing today.

The team at Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico did not just try to build another robot. They built a work of art and an artist that has inspired millions around the world. Mexico’s robotics program has grown exponentially since Don Cuco, and the country continues to be a leading robotics innovator. Don Cuco el Guapo truly changed the world - as both a robot and an artist. Einstein would have applauded Don Cuco el Guapo and the team that created him.