Robot Conductor and the Tenor

A concert with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and soprano Maria Luigia Borsi in the decorated Teatro Verdi, in Florence, would not normally be something that I would cover. But they weren’t the ones people were there to watch. I enjoy music, but not enough to write about it. Last night’s performance was a little different, however.

The program, with “La donna è Mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto; “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”; and “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni isn’t unusual.  At the 1st International Robotics Festival in Pisa, Italy, the audience wasn’t there just to see the orchestra or the soloists. Instead, they came to see its robotic conductor.

This isn’t the first concert to be conducted by a robot. Asimo, by Honda, led the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008. But YuMi, a dual-arm robot from Swedish company ABB is different. YuMi has shoulders, elbow and wrist, allowing conductor Andrea Colombini to train its flexible movements. This allows a more natural movement than Asimo’s, even if it couldn’t walk to the stage.

But as with most technology demonstrations, this was more illusion than it first seems. YuMi, although capable of a full range of movement, would mimic the conductor’s actions in a well-choreographed routine. It was not conducting so much as replaying, with the orchestra following based on the YuMi’s pre-programmed steps. Real performing will happen when the conductor can listen to the soloist and follow their lead, in turn, based on the response of the audience and orchestra to the piece.

ABB has a news release on the event, and various news outlets have their reflections, which often include members of the ensemble. Phys.org, the BBC, and Engadget are among these.