Robot Conducts Detroit Symphony

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

On Wednesday, the day after the Honda robot conducted the Detroit Symphony, ASIMO warmed up a crowd of 250 schoolchildren who came to the concert hall to watch a master class with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. ASIMO — which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility — ran, danced and kicked a soccer ball to the delight of the students.

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

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

"A lot of kids I know think robots are cool and would be interesting to work on," he said.

Honda Motor Co., 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 symphony for music education efforts. The donation will fund introductory music training and outreach in schools and will help young musicians get access to instruments and private lessons.

Charles Burke, the Detroit Symphony's education director, said just 30 percent of Detroit schoolchildren have access to music programs; of those, 8 percent have only string education. The statistics are similar in other urban districts, Burke said. Suburban districts are also cutting music programs as the economy worsens, he said.

"The Detroit Symphony already has a deep commitment to education, but we wanted to really put the country on notice that we are going to take it even more seriously," Burke said.

Antonio Jackson, a 15-year-old cellist who attends the Detroit School of Arts, was blown away by his chance to work with Ma during Wednesday's master class. Ma encouraged Jackson to put more emotion and physicality into his playing.

"Meeting Yo-Yo Ma was one of the greatest things I've ever done in my life, next to meeting (Detroit Pistons guard) Chauncey Billups," said Jackson, who wants to study music at The Juilliard School. "I learned how to be more a part of my instrument."

Cecelia Sharpe, who conducts one of the symphony's youth string ensembles, said music education teaches children discipline, social skills, teamwork and responsibility, and the Honda gift will allow kids to have access to instruments they couldn't otherwise afford.

"It gives them more options even if they don't do it as a career. It's something nobody can take away from them," Sharpe said.

Leonard Slatkin, the Detroit Symphony's music director, 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, which was conducting an orchestra in a live performance for the first time, impressed both the students and the symphony's musicians with its fluid, human-like 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 Mitch Leigh's "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 Franz Joseph 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.

"The future's full of possibilities we may not want to imagine," he said.