Recently someone posted four videos on Trombone-L of musical robots made by Toyota. Someone else found them very depressing. Live musicians, he wrote, have enough trouble without competition from yet another machine. If Toyota has already had this much success, what’s next? I have an answer, but first, here are the robot musicians:
A tuba player–to me the least impressive of the bunch but still quite amazing:
A trumpeter with pretty good sound. It plays better than a lot of human trumpeters, even if it’s stage presence is a little, shall we say, mechanical.
A small jazz combo. What, no trombone?
And finally, a brief appearance by a robot violinist. This final video reveals the reason why Toyota is working on robot musicians. The engineers have no particular interest in music. Developing these robots is no more than a means to an end.
Toyota engineers (among others) want to develop robots with more useful and practical skills. You will notice a robotic wheel chair and a robot capable of acting as a tour guide and signing its name. Ultimately, Toyota wants to produce robots capable of interacting with people in real time, robotic cars, for example. Apparently people will still drive the cars, but the robots will notice road conditions, hazards, and whether the human is too tired or otherwise impaired to continue safely.
In other words, Toyota engineers have developed the ability to build an entire orchestra of robots, but they probably won’t. Once they learn all they can from building robot musicians, they will turn to other challenges, long before they make robot musicians for every instrument. I, for one, would love to see them build a trombonist that can play Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland before they move away from music.
Even though it is possible to build robots with the mechanical ability to play tunes or even ensembles, I can’t conceive of robots playing with feeling or taste. So there are at least three reasons not to worry about live musicians losing work to robots: engineers are not interested in making enough robots; they would be far too expensive to build, program, and maintain; and they can never make the jump from technological mastery to artistry.