The lights dimmed, the sold-out hall grew hushed and out walked the conductor — shiny, white and 4 feet, 3 inches tall.
ASIMO, a robot designed by Honda Motor Co., met its latest challenge Tuesday evening: Conducting the Detroit Symphony in a performance of "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha."
"Hello, everyone," ASIMO said to the audience in a childlike voice, then waved to the orchestra.
As it conducted, it perfectly mimicked the actions of a conductor, nodding its head at various sections and gesturing with one or both hands. ASIMO took a final bow to enthusiastic shouts from the audience.
"It is absolutely thrilling to perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is a magnificent concert hall," ASIMO said.
Later, cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined ASIMO onstage to receive an award for his efforts in music education. Ma bent to ASIMO's height and shook the robot's hand. Ma performed later on the program but didn't take questions from the media about ASIMO.
Honda spokeswoman Alicia Jones said it was the first time ASIMO has conducted an orchestra, and it may be the first time any robot has conducted a live performance. ASIMO stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.
ASIMO goofed in rehearsal
ASIMO has its limits. ASIMO's engineers programmed the robot to mimic Charles Burke, the Detroit Symphony's education director, as he conducted the piece in front of a pianist about six months ago. But it can't respond to the musicians.
During the first rehearsal, the orchestra lost its place when ASIMO began to slow the tempo, something a human conductor would have sensed and corrected, said bassist Larry Hutchinson.
"It's not a communicative device. It simply is programmed to do a sense of gestures," said Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra's musical director. "If the orchestra decides to go faster, there's nothing the robot can do about it. Hopefully, I keep that under control."
But several musicians also said ASIMO was more realistic than they expected.
"The movements are still a little stiff, but very humanlike, much more fluid than I thought," Hutchinson said.
Honda has been developing walking robots since 1986. The latest version of ASIMO debuted last year. Honda eventually intends its robots to be companions for the elderly and others in need, such as schoolchildren navigating crosswalks. ASIMO can run, walk on uneven slopes and respond to simple voice commands. It can also recognize faces with its camera eyes.
Honda brought the robot to Detroit to highlight its recent $1 million gift to the orchestra for a music education fund.