It’s not uncommon for conductors to break into a full sweat as they lead a symphony performance.
Their goal, after all, is to translate musical energy into a readable, physical form.
The endeavor is not only demanding — with sudden stops and starts and moments of delicate fluidity — but also full of artistic imagination, which is exactly why conducting would appear to be one of the few roles that remain safe from the incoming robot revolution.
A two-armed collaborative humanoid robot named YuMi raises doubts about that idea.
The robot made its debut at a charity concert at the historic Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy, last week before a crowd of 800, according to ABB, the Swiss firm that designed the machine.
YuMi — whose name is derived from the phrase “you and me” — led the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra as the instrumentalists performed with Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and soprano Maria Luigia Borsi, who sang the classic aria “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.”
“We basically had to find time to understand his movements,” the orchestra’s resident conductor, Andrea Colombini, told Reuters. “When we found the way, everything was pretty easy.”
“It is absolutely fantastic,” he added. “And the technicians were fantastic just to make everything perfect, especially in the length and in the speed of the gesture, which is very important.”
Colombini has spent decades perfecting his craft, portions of which YuMi was able to replicate after several days of rehearsals, according to ABB. In a process called “lead-through programming,” the conductor carefully guided the robot’s arms so the machine could memorize his movements. Afterward, those recorded movements were fine-tuned and synchronized to the music using a software program, ABB said.
“The robot is not able to improvise, and any unexpected change in tempo from the musicians would have been ruinous,” Reuters noted.
Colombini said the robot remains unable to read “human sensitivity.” He foresees the machine being used as a rehearsal aid in the absence of a human conductor, many of whom have busy travel schedules.
YuMi’s moment in the spotlight lasted only 15 minutes and covered but three songs, but ABB chief executive Ulrich Spiesshofer said the robot gave the audience of glimpse of the future.
“I think tonight we’re truly making history and writing the future of robotics applications,” he said. “YuMi demonstrated how intuitive, how self-learning this machine is — how wonderful our software really is in learning the movement of a conductor, sensing the music and really conducting an entire team.”