Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony Detroit's Orchestra Hall was like a scene out of the Jetsons on Tuesday night. A robot designed by Honda conducted the Detroit Symphony. ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, led musicians during a performance of The Impossible Dream.
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Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

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Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

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Robot Performs with Yo-Yo Ma

Robot Performs with Yo-Yo Ma

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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.

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

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Courtesy Detroit Symphony

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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ASIMO conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, May 13, 2008.

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