High note in handling musicians

Central Station | 14 Sep 2017

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli's voice soars in the Tuscan theater in Pisa, but all eyes are on the conductor beside him - a robot named YuMi with a penchant for Verdi.

It's the International Festival of Robotics, and YuMi sweeps its baton skywards with one hand as the other curves in a caress that spurs on the strings as the operatic La Donna e Mobile (Woman Is Fickle) reaches a climax.

YuMi can conduct set pieces but cannot improvise with musicians and so was "extremely difficult" to train," says Andrea Colombini, conductor of the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed with Bocelli and soprano Maria Luigia Borsi.

YuMi, designed by Swiss robotics firm ABB, was taught to mimic Colombini's gestures.

The maestro said the automaton was more sophisticated than Asimo, a robot designed by Honda that famously conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008. "YuMi's arms have the same mobility as mine," he says. But it must be seated to achieve the balance needed to move its long arms. And it's not a friendly-looking robot. "It was not love at first sight," Colombini says. And training YuMi to perform six minutes of music "took 17 hours of work."

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