Eight hundred people from around the world sat beneath Teatro Verdi’s fresco-covered ceiling in Pisa, Italy, with their eyes on a white, futuristic contraption that looked starkly out of place amongst the elegantly dressed musicians.

YuMi, the world’s first truly collaborative dual-arm robot, was making its debut in opera, conducting the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra, and famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, on Wednesday. YuMi’s debut was a 15-minute interlude in a charity concert called “A breath of hope: from the Stradivarius to the robot”, held for the First International Festival of Robotics.

The two-armed robot designed by Swiss robotics firm ABB conducted not one,but three songs, which included cueing Bocelli for La Donna é Mobile as well as soloist Maria Luigia Borsi for the classic soprano aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.

YuMi’s performance was considered outstanding, as it showed a high level of fluidity of gesture and was able to capture the movements of human arms with uncanny accuracy. “I think tonight we’re truly making history and writing the future of robotics applications,” said ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer, who was part of the audience. “YuMi demonstrated how intuitive, how self-learning this machine is.”

How it learnt

The robot learnt in two steps. The first step involved capturing the movements of Andrea Colombini, the director of the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra, during rehearsals using a process called “lead-through programming”. And the second was to synchronising the movements to the music.

YuMi’s opera debut may have been a crucial moment in robotics, as its sophisticated movements and the technology used can potentially be employed in delicate electro-mechanic assembly, and shows vast potential for human-robot collaborations.

Colombini, however, had a hard time training the robot, and said it took 17 hours of work to train YuMi to perform six minutes of music. He told AFP, “There’s no way it could replace the sensitivity and emotion of a conductor, because a robot has no soul. It’s just an arm, not the brain, not the heart.”

Watch YuMi rehearsing for its performance, below: