Humanoid robot to conduct Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Honda's Asimo a robotic ambassador

A humanoid robot will conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra next month, mixing two different cultures - technology and music.

Honda Motor Co.'s Asimo robot was built to help people and to someday assist the elderly and disabled in their homes. While many features are still in development, Asimo has already become something of a robotic ambassador.

Jill Woodward, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said she hopes having Asimo conduct a song in the sold-out May 13 concert will spark interest in science, technology and music among adults and children.

"It's an interesting marriage of technology and culture," said Woodward. "He's being programmed [to conduct the orchestra]. The musicians will have to follow him and do what he says. It will be interesting to see if he has, shall we say, a different take on the piece."

Woodward added that she hopes the robot will draw attention to the symphony's Power of Dreams music education program that is funding an effort to teach inner city children to play stringed instruments. "Asimo inspires kids in technology and now he's interested in music," she said laughing.

Honda has donated more than US$1 million to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for its music education fund.

Asimo will conduct the orchestra for one song -- "Impossible Dream" from the musical, Man of La Mancha. The robot also will present a Lifetime Achievement award to world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will play at the concert but will not be conducted by Asimo.

The day after his concert debut, the Asimo robot will demonstrate its conducting abilities to local music students. Yo-Yo Ma will join in to give a master class to a select group of students.

In February, Honda showed off Asimo's ability to climb stairs and run 4 miles per hour at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as part of the Japan Culture and Hyperculture festival.

Honda began working on robots back in 1986, first building a pair of walking legs. In 2000, the company's engineers unveiled an early version of Asimo, or Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility. Asimo made its debut in the U.S. on Feb. 14, 2002, when it rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Today, the robot is able to walk forward and backward, climb up and down stairs, and even run at speeds of nearly 4 miles per hour.

Over the next five years, Honda is slated to establish a program to provide private lessons to aspiring students with financial need; support the orchestra's youth ensemble performances, and raise funds for efforts, such as the African-American Fellowship Program.

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