Thanks to readers for reminding that I have not posted a story for almost a week. My only excuse for not being more prolific during the last few days is that I have been very busy — board meetings, conference calls, some travel, a bit of motorcycle riding necessitated by occasional bursts of sunlight, and far too many re-boots of Windows. There are many Internet technology related things to write about, but this short story will be about conducting.
Music is an important part of life for most people. In addition to appreciating the great composers and musicians of the world, we should also be thankful for the great conductors. Without the maestros, orchestras would not be coordinated nor would they be as dynamic and expressive. Even in an acapella arrangement, one of the singers provides the lead for the other singers.
Hearing the perfectly balanced New York Philharmonic orchestra perform Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C Major (the "Great") last weekend got me thinking about the art of conducting. Lorin Maazel is an amazing conductor — he has had a bit of practice — more than 150 orchestras in more than 5,000 opera and concert performances. He conducted the four part symphony with no score! The final movement alone is fifteen minutes of exuberance. He has obviously conducted this significant work many times before. He showed no signs of being tired of it. The Sony QRIO humanoid robot could conduct it a million times and not get tired of it.
My friend Sidney Rothstein, himself a great conductor, gave me some conducting lessons to help me prepare to conduct the first movement of Mozart’s twenty-fifth symphony last year. It was an experience that I will never forget. The emotional component of conducting is significant, so when I learned from NewScientist.com (thanks to Mike Maney at Unisys for telling me about this) that a humanoid robot had conducted Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I was quite amazed and interested. According to NewScientist.com, the 23 inch-tall robot led the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in a rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony during a concert held at the Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Tokyo on 15 March.
The QRIO is perhaps the best example of how far robots have come in recent years. The Sony robot can walk on two feet and dance dynamically due to a newly designed joint actuator.
The actuator has the ability to produce varying levels of torque at varying speeds, while being able to respond quickly and with agility. Sony says that their gears are "precise, quiet, and highly dependable". The QRIO can detect the precise position of its body and, based on it’s posture, can drive it’s joints to a calculated target position. The QRIO also has sensors in it’s feet that allow it to detect the nature of the surface it is on. Sophisticated programming takes in all the data about the conditions and then enables "dynamic walking" — basically what us humans do. It is definitely worth visiting Sony’s web site to learn more about the incredible accomplishments of the QRIO design team.
The robots may learn how to emulate humans’ ability to move across uneven ground or up stairs, or even to stay balanced while dancing, but I think it will be many years before a robot will be able to feel the emotion behind a Mozart or Beethoven symphony. Hearing the vibrant strings of the violins and cellos just a few feet from you generates a feeling that it turn gets communicated back to the musicians that causes them to put even more emotion into what the are playing which inspires the conductor even further which……..
I love the technology of robots and there is no question that they will have huge positive impact in our lives — for healthcare and industrial productivity. For conducting orchestras, I think the maestros have very good employment security.