The automation of work—coming to a podium near you?

He’s cute—and he’s coming to take your job. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Before drifting to sleep I came across this story on Reuters:

YuMi the humanoid robot showed no signs of nerves on Tuesday night as it raised its baton to conduct the Lucca Philarmonic Orchestra alongside Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

The two-armed robot, designed by Swiss firm ABB, made its debut at Pisa’s Verdi Theatre to mark the First International Festival of Robotics in the Tuscan city.

“YuMi has a high level of gesture and fluidity in its movements, as well as an incredible nuance of expression,” Andrea Colombini, the usual conductor of the Lucca orchestra, told Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper.

“It is an incredible step forward given the normal rigid gestures seen in robots up until now.”

Though the selections YuMi conducted were fairly simple, not to mention so well known that the orchestra could have played them blindfolded, I have to admit to being impressed by how remarkably fluid its motions were, even if the pacing of the actual performance did not match. 

What I found more revealing was how the robot’s functioning reflects a wider misunderstanding of the role of the conductor. 

When first getting into classical music as a child, the function of the conductor eluded my grasp. I regarded them as being traffic cops who ensured everyone stayed in their own lane and allowed things to move neatly. It was not until I became older that their importance became clear—and why so many listeners argue passionately about them. 

Perhaps this is simplifying things excessively: But the difference between a competent conductor and a great one is like the difference between an actor who can capably perform a script and one who simply is the character they play. 

The manner in which YuMi was programmed to conduct—fluid motions, stiff pacing—reflects the widespread ignorance of what the conductor does and what they are capable of. 

Still, the possibilities of future developments have yet to reveal themselves. Perhaps one can dream of a Mengelberg or Golovanov patch in some not too distant future?

The Lucca Philharmonic’s music director clarified to CNBC that conductors can rest easy for now.

[Andrea] Colombini insisted that YuMi would not do away with the need for humans to inject “spirit” and “soul” into orchestral performances.

“I imagine the robot could serve as an aid, perhaps to execute, in the absence of a conductor, the first rehearsal, before the director steps in to make the adjustments that result in the material and artistic interpretation of a work of music,” he added in his post.

YuMi or some future successor may indeed eventually be of practical use in rehearsal and even in performance. Moreover, music’s inherent humanity will ensure that its living performers can rest easy knowing that at least their field is safe from automation. Though with the leaps and strides that robotic technology is expected to make in the coming years, some of today’s photogenic, if listless maestros would do well to look over their shoulders. 

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