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

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The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has played host at some of the biggest names in the conducting world. But last night, a different kind of celebrity held the baton at orchestra hall. As Detroit Public Radio's Noah Ovshinsky reports, this conductor was short in stature and on words.

NOAH OVSHINSKY: ASIMO is not your typical conductor. It's gender neutral, stands at a little over four feet tall - oh, and it has no pulse. It's a humanoid robot that had its conducting debut last night in Detroit. It walked - yes, you heard me - it walked onto stage to a thunderous applause worthy of Leonard Bernstein.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVSHINSKY: It addressed the audience briefly…

ASIMO (Humanoid Robot): Hello, everyone.

Unidentified Group: Hello.

OVSHINSKY: …then gracefully walked to the center of the stage, bowed, and began leading the orchestra in a performance of "Impossible Dream" from the musical, "Man of La Mancha."

(Soundbite of song, "Impossible Dream")

OVSHINSKY: ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovated Mobility, is a robot designed and built by Honda. One of its main goals is to get kids interested in math and science. But last night, ASIMO took a stab at conducting. How did it do? David Everson, who plays the French horn, says while ASIMO's timing was impeccable, like a metronome, something clearly was missing.

Mr. DAVID EVERSON (French Horn, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): This thing doesn't have any eyes. You can't see its eyes. They can't convey any kind of emotions to you, you know, 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.

OVSHINSKY: Leonard Slatkin is the DSO's newly installed music director. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he echoes Everson's analysis. Slatkin says a conductor must be able to improvise, a skill ASIMO has yet to master.

Mr. LEONARD SLATKIN (Music Director, Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music): Sometimes you want to take a passage a little bit slower. Sometimes it needs to have a darker color. Sometimes it should be soft. And these are all things that a conductor conveys to the orchestra on a spur of the moment.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

OVSHINSKY: At intermission, people of all ages were heard talking about and mimicking ASIMO. Janey Degnan plays in the youth orchestra. She says she was surprised by its seemingly human qualities.

Ms. JANEY DEGNAN: I thought he was going to be more boxy, but his head - like, the proportions were human-like and his fingers were, you know, yeah.

OVSHINSKY: Janey's brother Kelen(ph) is also a classical music fan. He says ASIMO has the technique down, but…

Mr. KELEN DEGNAN: A conductor can really convey, like, emotion, and like, it's not as mechanical. It needs to have energy, and a robot just can't do that.

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

For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.

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