On Tuesday, the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra performed in front of a crowd at Teatro Verdi in Pisa, Italy. Renowned Grammy-nominated tenor Andrea Bocelli performed, as did soprano Maria Luigia Borsi, each belting out notes for a crowd of about 800 people.
There was just one thing a little bit off: The conductor was a robot.
The bot, called YuMi, was built by Swiss robotics company ABB. YuMi has made waves in the past because of its ability to perform tasks requiring fine motor skills, like threading a needle, using its two arms.
The performance Tuesday was part of the First International Festival of Robotics, which is being held in Pisa this week. ABB, one of the so-called "big four" global robot manufacturers, used it as a platform to show off the types of tasks YuMi can be programmed to perform.
The 84-pound bot has wrists, elbows, and shoulders that give it wide freedom of motion. Its movement is fluid, similar to that of a human, instead of the jerky mechanics you might be used to seeing from our robotic friends.
Training the bot required collaboration between ABB and conductor Andrea Colombini. YuMi uses a process called "lead through" programming, which means it can be physically taught rather than relying on back-end software. The Italian musician used his own arms to guide YuMi through "La Donna è mobile" and several other songs it conducted on Tuesday. The robot recorded and remembered Colombini's movements, and ABB's engineers then fine-tuned them.
ABB, along with Germany's Kuka and Japan's Fanuc and Yasukawa Electric, are the four biggest players in the worldwide industrial robotics market, an industry that's projected to triple to $33.8 billion by 2025.
YuMi has found its way into factories around the globe since debuting at Germany's Hannover Messe tech festival in 2015. The bot is equipped with 30 sensors that perceive the world in 3-D. It shuts down if a human comes too close, which means humans can work right alongside it without the need for the protective fencing often found in factories that use bots. It can be trained on tasks like sorting objects or turning screws in as little as 10 minutes, without any coding knowledge required for the human trainer.
Unlike a person, though, the robot won't respond to the way an orchestra plays: The percussion section won't receive some emphatic waves of the baton if it starts to fall behind the beat; a cellist who misses a note won't get a stern look.
It's that sort of difference that cements YuMi as a supplement a human's role, not a bot meant to take it away--at least for now. And it's why Colombini doesn't seem to feel threatened by his robot counterpart.
"Of course, YuMi is good when it comes to technique, but is ultimately not gifted with human sensitivity," he wrote last week. "The robot uses its arms, but the soul, the spirit, always come from a human."