Robot Performs with Yo-Yo Ma

Honda's ASIMO robot

Honda's ASIMO robot will lead the Detroit Symphony. Courtesy Detroit Symphony hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Detroit Symphony

Music critics sometimes slam symphony conductors for their overly robotic approach. When the Detroit Symphony performs Tuesday with soloist Yo-Yo Ma, that criticism won't be a criticism. The DSO will be led by Honda's ASIMO robot.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with Day to Day. In Detroit tonight, conductor Leonard Slatkin will give up his place at the podium and his baton to a robot. The car company Honda has a humanoid robot named ASIMO. ASIMO is going to demonstrate its, or his - I don't know - musical ear by conducting "The Impossible Dream." Celeste Headlee reports from Detroit.

CELESTE HEADLEE: You've probably seen videos of Honda's little robot, a shiny, white and black figure with a big backpack, walking upstairs, waving and dancing for the cameras. But tonight he'll step onstage of Orchestra Hall in Detroit, climb on to the podium and turn to lead the orchestra in a public performance.

Ms. SHARON SPARROW (Second Flutist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): There are basically two types of conductors: The ones that you want to watch, and the ones that you won't watch. And so I think for us, this robot is one we definitely want to watch.

HEADLEE: Sharon Sparrow is the second flutist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Her colleague Larry Hutchinson point out that the little robot's namesake, science fiction icon Isaac Asimov, originally wrote the rules of robotics.

Mr. LARRY HUTCHINSON (Bass Player, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): And the first rule of robotics is that a robot cannot harm humans. And I was just thinking that I wish more conductors had followed that philosophy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of orchestra "The Impossible Dream")

HEADLEE: That's maestro Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops in "The Impossible Dream," from "Man of La Mancha." David Edo (ph) with Honda says his company videotaped a conductor leading a rehearsal of the piece. Then, engineers programmed the robot to imitate the video perfectly.

Mr. DAVID EDO (Honda Car Company): ASIMO doesn't have the capability to sort of interact with the musicians and to interpret the different delicate nuances of the music. But it can give you a very accurate rendition each time.

HEADLEE: The performance is meant to call attention to Honda's new educational initiative with the DSO. The automaker is giving more than a million dollars to create a fund that will provide instruments and music lessons to underserved kids in Detroit. And music director Leonard Slatkin says that's what matters, not all the hoopla over a cute, little robot.

Mr. LEONARD SLATKIN (Conductor and Music Director, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): So if you have an automaton doing this, but it ultimately benefits flesh and blood, then I don't think anybody has a problem with it.

HEADLEE: Slatkin says this isn't really about a robot replacing a human conductor. ASIMO can't interpret the music emotionally or respond to the musicians.

Mr. SLATKIN: The orchestra decided it was going to play a little faster. The robot really can't adjust to that. It just, I assume, waves the stick up and down, and the orchestra follows it, much in the same way you would anybody who is not trained in the field. It's a technical device.

HEADLEE: But do the musicians think having a mechanical object on the podium is undignified?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I don't think our dignity and our musicianship is that fragile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think we can afford to have a little fun with it.

HEADLEE: And, Hutchinson says, there's a real benefit to pairing this centuries-old art form with a futuristic high-tech creation.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think we need to find ways to demonstrate that our art form belongs in this century. And I think it's important that we do things like that, that once in a while we let our hair down and have some fun.

HEADLEE: Leonard Slatkin says the robot is really more a kind of mascot than a true conductor. But still...

Mr. SLATKIN: I'll be happy when ASIMO finished, and they will ask to see me again. Yeah, and I get more than ASIMO anyway. Let's put it this way. I'm not worried about my job.

HEADLEE: ASIMO's conducting debut tonight will last about three minutes or so. And the engineers at Honda must be praying the audience doesn't call for an encore. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

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Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has played host to some of the biggest names in the conducting world. But Tuesday night, a different kind of celebrity held the baton at Orchestra Hall. This conductor was short both in stature and on words.

ASIMO is not your typical conductor. It's gender neutral, stands at a little over 4 feet tall and has no pulse. It's a humanoid robot that made its conducting debut last night in Detroit.

It walked onto the stage to thunderous applause worthy of Leonard Bernstein.

"Hello, everyone," it said.

"Hello," the audience responded.

Then, ASIMO gracefully walked to the center of the stage, bowed and began leading the orchestra in a performance of "The Impossible Dream" from the musical Man of La Mancha.

ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, is a robot designed and built by Honda. One of its main goals is to get kids interested in math and science. But Tuesday night, ASIMO took a stab at conducting.

How did it do?

David Everson, who plays the French horn, said that while ASIMO's timing was impeccable, like a metronome, something clearly was missing.

"This thing doesn't have any eyes," Everson said. "You can't see its eyes. They can't convey any kind of emotions to you other than ... It's standing up there, it's not moving forward, it's not moving back. It's not making little small gestures or giving anybody any cues."

Leonard Slatkin, the DSO's newly installed music director, echoed Everson's analysis. Slatkin said that a conductor must be able to improvise — a skill ASIMO has yet to master.

"Sometimes you want to take a passage a little bit slower; sometimes it needs to have a darker color; sometimes it should be softer," Slatkin said. "These are all things that a conductor conveys to the orchestra on the spur of the moment."

At intermission, people of all ages were heard talking about and mimicking ASIMO.

"I thought he was going to be more boxy," but his head and fingers were humanlike, said Janey Degnan, who plays in a youth orchestra.

ASIMO's presence in Detroit, while entertaining, was also meant to draw attention to the importance of music education. A champion of the cause shared the stage with the robot last night: Famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma received an award and performed later in the evening.

Although ASIMO seems to be acquiring new skills at an almost inhuman rate, musicians say that Ma's job is safe. Conducting is one thing, they say, but a robot has yet to master an instrument like the cello.

Noah Ovshinsky reports from Detroit Public Radio.

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