There are many things that make humans unique, but apparently a love of music isn’t one of them. Toyota had its violin and trumpet playing robots on display recently during several public performances at their AMLUX building in Tokyo. Visitors got to see the humanoid bots play their instruments alongside real human violinists and pianists in an interesting blend of man and machine musicianship. It’s a little recursively surreal to watch humans try to match their playing to machines that are (ostensibly) designed to mimic human playing themselves. Check it out in the videos below. These ‘Partner Robots‘ may be putting on a good show, but Toyota’s final goal is anything but music. Part of their longterm vision, the automotive company hopes these bots will play major roles in its ventures in healthcare, housework, and manufacturing.
First, a quick rendition of Pomp and Circumstance. It’s a piece the robot violinist has performed many times in the past, including at its debut. It sounds better here with a few humans to back it up.
Here, you see the trumpeting version of the robot strut its stuff with its human counterparts.
Disappointingly, it seems like none of the music the robots played represented new pieces in their repertoire. Besides the two songs above, the violinist also performed a version of jasmine flower that it had previously demonstrated at the Shanghai World Expo last year.
As I mentioned before, however, the point of these robots really isn’t their musical prowess. These humanoids are part of the larger Partner Robots endeavor – a project aimed at developing machines that can directly assist humans by working in human environments. Intended applications could include elder care (or general hospital/nursing home work), manufacturing, or work around the home. Looking at the Partner Robots web page you get the idea that Toyota is aiming to have these things come as close to being a replacement for human workers as they can get.
Where does the music fit in? It’s just part of the general demonstration of the complexity and humanity of these robots. We’ve seen another version of the humanoid Partner Robot (one with notably different specifications) run at speeds up to seven kilometers an hour. That test showed the general speed and agility of the project, just as the musician bots show their approachability and pleasantness.
This need to highlight how robots and humans can get along is a pretty common one among robot researchers. We’ve seen similar demonstrations using dance. These companies realize that the social and legal hurdles to the adoption of technology can be as formidable as some of the engineering challenges they face. It will be many years before Partner Robots are ready to serve as laborers in the real world, but Toyota is smart to start preparing us for that future now. Once they get us to trust a robot to serenade us to sleep, we’ll probably be open to letting it do much much more.