On April 23rd of this year, Honda issued a press release that began:
Honda's ASIMO humanoid robot will focus attention on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's (DSO) nationally acclaimed music programs for young people in Detroit by conducting the orchestra as it performs 'Impossible Dream' to open a special concert performance with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma at 8 p.m., Tuesday May 13. Honda hopes ASIMO's appearance will draw attention to the DSO's music education programs, and particularly the DSO's effort to encourage and support involvement of children in Detroit.
Leave to one side the fact that those two sentences seem to have been copy-edited by James Joyce. A major symphony orchestra is about to be conducted by a robot which, from the photos and video I have seen, looks rather like a Lego figure perched atop two hockey goalie's pads.
This has set tongues to clucking. One wag remarked that the difference between ASIMO and Herbert von Karajan is that ASIMO is honest about being a robot. (ASIMO was never a member of the Nazi party either). Another commented that a robotic conductor going through the motions is hardly news; we tend to call them "Kappellemeisters." Another commented that "conductor" and "artificial intelligence" is a redundancy. This is lovely, if a bit pale, but it misses the point.
The idea here is not to demonstrate that a robot can lead an orchestra. A professional orchestra can dispatch "Impossible Dream" quite handily with no conductor at all by simply following the concertmaster. A robot can be programmed to waive a stick in a pre-programmed manner and it will begin with a downbeat and end with a flourish. I suppose that the good news is that it will not have one idea in rehearsal and different one in performance.
Honda is engaged in marketing; it wishes to associate its humanoid robot with the civic-minded work of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It is a clever way to get Honda to inform the rest of us about "ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility [and which] is designed to help people and will someday assist the elderly and disabled in their homes." The May 13th concert, which is already sold out, is, coincidentally, sponsored by Honda. A concert. In Detroit. Sponsored by Honda. Sold out. Yup.
Although the thought is enough to cause Alfred P. Sloan to turn over in his grave, Honda has donated one million dollars to the DSO to create The Power of Dreams Music Education Fund, designed to promote music education and "promote diversity in the field of classical music" (whatever that means). And if the price of this largesse is that its robot will walk out on the stage, turn its back to the audience (the battery pack on its back, incidentally, does say "HONDA" in large letters) and waive a baton, I'll trade three minutes of chuckles and the ability to laugh at a machine for one million dollars any time.
The seeming silliness of the project hides a few very important facts: Honda is being a responsible corporate citizen. It has put its attention and its money toward furthering music education and in so doing it is helping to create DSO audiences for the next several decades. And in a world in which government support for the arts is shrinking, music education in the public schools is an endangered species and corporate support for the arts is moving in the wrong direction, Honda is to be praised. That they have scarfed a large amount of publicity for this silly stunt is a credit to its ad men and women.
But I will tell you right now: If BMW tries to make a similar gift and tie it to having Karajan's corpse appear on stage, he'd better not be asked to conduct Parsifal. It was deadly enough when he was alive.