For the Kids, Robot Conducts in the Key of Cool

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma greets Honda's ASIMO robot Tuesday after it conducted the Detroit Symphony.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma greets Honda's ASIMO robot Tuesday after it conducted the Detroit Symphony. (By Paul Sancya -- Associated Press)
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By Dee-Ann Durbin
Associated Press
Thursday, May 15, 2008

DETROIT -- Classical music enthusiasts long have sought to drum up support for the musical genre among young people, and now they have a secret weapon: a 4-foot-3 childlike robot.

On Wednesday, the day after the Honda robot ASIMO conducted the Detroit Symphony, it warmed up a crowd of 250 students who came to the concert hall to watch a master class with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

ASIMO -- which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility -- ran, danced and kicked a soccer ball.

"It was phenomenal. I had no idea of the level people were developing robots," said Sam Pernick, a 16-year-old cellist from the Detroit suburb Huntington Woods.

Eric Hwu, 14, a fellow musician from Bloomfield Hills, said he thinks a robot could potentially play a musical instrument, but in the meantime, ASIMO could get kids excited about technology.

"A lot of kids I know think robots are cool," he said.

Honda, which has been developing humanoid robots since the mid-1980s, brought ASIMO and Ma to Detroit as part of its recent $1 million donation to the orchestra for music education efforts. The donation will pay for introductory music training and outreach in schools and will help young musicians get access to instruments and private lessons.

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit orchestra (as well as the National Symphony Orchestra), said ASIMO can serve as a kind of mascot for the city's efforts, since it relates well to younger people. But he joked to the students that he's not concerned about losing his job to a robot.

ASIMO impressed both the students and the symphony's musicians with its fluid, humanlike movements. But it can only mimic the actions of a previously videotaped conductor and can't respond to musicians. If the horns come in late or the orchestra speeds up, ASIMO can't change course in the middle of a piece.

"Ultimately, a great orchestra like Detroit's, with great instruments playing in a great hall -- technology is not ever going to replace that," said Larry Hutchinson, a bassist with the symphony.

ASIMO, which conducted the orchestra in "The Impossible Dream" from the musical "Man of La Mancha," gestured with one or both hands and nodded its head in the direction of certain sections.

But the difference was clear when conductor Thomas Wilkins and soloist Ma took the stage. Wilkins was deft with the baton, his motions sometimes broad and sometimes delicate to match the moods of Haydn's first cello concerto. The final movement went at such a blistering tempo it was difficult to imagine ASIMO keeping up.

Rick Robinson, a bassist with the symphony, said conductors won't be replaced anytime soon. But after watching ASIMO, he said he could imagine a day when a robot could stand in for a conductor who couldn't make it to rehearsals.

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