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A robot conducts an orchestra

ABB's robot YuMi takes center stage in Pisa, conducts Andrea Bocelli and Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra

Once the concert was over, after the famous tenor and the musicians had taken their final bows, and the applause had died down, when the stage had been cleared and the last member of the audience had walked out of the concert hall, the conductor – YuMi, ABB’s two-armed collaborative robot – bore the same expression it had during the performance. Unlike a human conductor, YuMi hadn’t retired backstage to greet the fans. There was no dramatic gesture of farewell; no acknowledgement of the historic feat that had been achieved; no champagne toast to celebrate the moment. Instead, YuMi’s hands were locked into position; the computer that controlled it had been shut off for the evening; and the robot looked as inscrutable as it always did.

Meanwhile the audience was still marveling at what it had witnessed. YuMi had magisterially conducted the singers Andrea Bocelli and Maria Luigi Borsi and the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra in a program that featured passages from the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni.

Bocelli said afterwards that it was fun to perform with YuMi. ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer, who oversaw the development and launch of the robot, was there to see YuMi conduct. He said that the real success of YuMi lay in the interplay of the software and physical hardware, how the two worked flawlessly in tandem.

Conducting an orchestra is famously difficult, but the 84-lb YuMi did so with fluidity and elegance. YuMi was trained by Andrea Colombini, conductor of the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra. YuMi’s programmers have incorporated machine learning, so YuMi can learn when someone moves the robot’s arms. This process of being taught through physical guidance instead of relying on complex code is known as lead-through programming and the state of the art in robotics. “The flexibility of YuMi’s arms is absolutely unthinkable,” Colombini had observed after rehearsing with the robot. “Not even incredible, but unthinkable for a machine.”

YuMi was introduced in 2015, meant primarily for the electronics industry. It is designed to replicate the sophisticated, multi-layered movements of human arms, wrists and hands. Each of YuMi’s arms moves on seven axis points (more than a typical robot of this type), which allows great flexibility, precision and quick, fluid movements. This enables it to collaborate safely and more effectively with human beings, working side-by-side to support workers in difficult, dangerous or repetitive tasks in everything from assembling electronics and watches to packaging foods.

In addition to its conducting debut in Pisa, YuMi recently rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange in New York City, solved a Rubik’s Cube in front of a room of spectators in one minute and nine seconds, and helped a patient with multiple sclerosis play chess.

What was it like to have a robot as conductor? The flutist Andrea Griminelli, who joined Bocelli for part of the program said he had never witnessed anything like this. “There are some conductors whose movements are difficult to follow. YuMi was beautiful. Imagine if the robot was trained by an exceptional conductor like Herbert von Karajan or Riccardo Muti, a lot of musicians would learn how a great conductor leads an orchestra. It would be valuable to musicians and budding conductors.”

The audience gave the performers a standing ovation, and streamed out. It was well past midnight. The lights inside the grand, fresco-covered Teatro Verdi in Pisa, designed in neoclassical style by the Venetian architect Andrea Scala, had dimmed. Outside the theater’s 19th century façade, on the Piazza San Paolo All’Orto, a few stray tourists were lingering under the watchful eyes of a couple of carabinieri, who stood by their police car. A couple of blocks away, the river Arno, its muddy waters now obscured by darkness, flowed slowly past, a placid presence in the crisp Tuscan night.

 

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