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January 25, 2009
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Robot masters the tabla

 
Trinidad and Tobago Guardian
January 25th, 2009
 
You can't put a price on Thumru's head, simply because the tabla-playing robot, invented by University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Prof Prakash Persad and his team, doesn't have one. But once the computer to which Thumru is attached is turned on, that missing head is all but forgotten in amazement at the deftness of the tabla-playing robot's six "fingers."
 
In all, Thumru-which Persad says is the name of a celestial musician-has been programmed to master six taals or distinctive beats of the tabla. During the playing of one of the taals, the "fingers" move faster than any human hands. Persad, 54, a practising SWAHA pundit, is an adept tabla player, and it is no idle boast of his that it is difficult-if not impossible-to distinguish between the music played by robot and human. Before UTT, where he is based on the O'Meara campus in Arima, Persad taught for 26 years at UWI, St Augustine. There, in the Faculty of Engineering, he specialised in the fields of control systems and robotics.
 
His research to create the tabla-playing began there, and in 2004, Persad was adjudged first in the Prime Minister's innovators award programme. The manufacture of robots with "artificial intelligence" is, in fact, a fast-developing field worldwide, according to Persad, who disclosed that around two million robots were sold internationally in 2006, some for such mundane purposes as polishing the floor. The trend now, he said was for inventors to venture into entertainment robots. Persad and his assistants at the UTT mechatronics laboratory-Jorrel Bisnath and Ruel Ellis-are still perfecting the tabla-playing robot, but are now venturing into fresh territory of coming up with a robot that can play the tenor pan. This project is still in the experimental stage, however, and presents fresh challenges to the team, such as the angles at which the pan sticks must be held to execute the notes. Persad disclosed that the mechatronics laboratory was planning a formal launch of the tabla-playing robot when a few more of the kinks have been ironed out.
 
He plans to have proper plastic fingers with knuckles, as well as a head with blinking eyes, manufactured on the laboratory's rapid prototyping machine, in time for the launch. The bespectacled professor is hoping to attract corporate sponsors to assist in further projects. Persad has already presented a paper in Canada on the tabla-playing robot, and the invention was registered at the Academy of Sangeet Research in Calcutta, India. He says he is proud to be part of the Indian diaspora to make a cultural contribution, and is planning to make a gift of a tabla-playing robot to the President of India on the occasion of Indian Arrival Day, May 30, this year. Persad's bright idea is for the tabla-playing robot to be duplicated and become a fixture at each of T&T's Embassies and High Commissions abroad. Persad's vision is to have the tabla-playing and tenor pan-playing robots execute a duet, and his first tune of choice would be the national anthem.