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Robot Conducts the Detroit Symphony

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has played host to some of the biggest names in the conducting world. But Tuesday night, a different kind of celebrity held the baton at Orchestra Hall. This conductor was short both in stature and on words.

ASIMO is not your typical conductor. It's gender neutral, stands at a little over 4 feet tall and has no pulse. It's a humanoid robot that made its conducting debut last night in Detroit.

It walked onto the stage to thunderous applause worthy of Leonard Bernstein.

"Hello, everyone," it said.

"Hello," the audience responded.

Then, ASIMO gracefully walked to the center of the stage, bowed and began leading the orchestra in a performance of "The Impossible Dream" from the musical Man of La Mancha.

ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, is a robot designed and built by Honda. One of its main goals is to get kids interested in math and science. But Tuesday night, ASIMO took a stab at conducting.

How did it do?

David Everson, who plays the French horn, said that while ASIMO's timing was impeccable, like a metronome, something clearly was missing.

"This thing doesn't have any eyes," Everson said. "You can't see its eyes. They can't convey any kind of emotions to you 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."

Leonard Slatkin, the DSO's newly installed music director, echoed Everson's analysis. Slatkin said that a conductor must be able to improvise — a skill ASIMO has yet to master.

"Sometimes you want to take a passage a little bit slower; sometimes it needs to have a darker color; sometimes it should be softer," Slatkin said. "These are all things that a conductor conveys to the orchestra on the spur of the moment."

At intermission, people of all ages were heard talking about and mimicking ASIMO.

"I thought he was going to be more boxy," but his head and fingers were humanlike, said Janey Degnan, who plays in a youth orchestra.

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 performed later in the evening.

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

Noah Ovshinsky reports from Detroit Public Radio.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Noah Ovshinsky