Robot jazz singer serenades audience in Tokyo


Staff Writer

Who says you need soul to sing jazz?

A humanoid robot vocalist was the centerpiece of an ensemble serenading onlookers at the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station on Wednesday.

Viewed from a distance, the band looked like a regular quartet. Up close, the alluring female singer proved to be an emotionless machine, moving its head, mouth and eyes to a recorded voice track.

The concert formed part of Geidai Arts in Marunouchi, a program of events organized by Tokyo University of the Arts, better known as Geidai.

The organizer was playwright and stage director Oriza Hirata, a professor at the university. Hirata came up with the idea of having a robot perform and drew on the expertise of android developer Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University, and Tatsuya Saito, technical director of creative and technology division at a Tokyo-based Abacus Inc. to have one built.

Ishiguro is renowned for making lifelike humanoid devices.

Saito, who directed the live event, said it was an experiment with a new form of music.

“People basically listen to recorded music and songs, so there are live performances. But there might be an experience in between,” he said.

Enter the robot.

Saito said robots may interact with humans in many different ways in future, one of them being as a source of music.

During this recital, the female humanoid was accompanied by three real-life musicians in renditions of “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Body and Soul,” and “Close to You,” among other classics.

The robot’s motility was restricted to its eyes, mouth and neck, but its skinlike appearance and apt responses to the music surprised some of the audience. Saito said the robot had been specially programmed to perform jazz.

“She was very good at moving her eyes and gazing at the audience,” said Mayumi Oka, a 40-something resident of Shinjuku Ward. “I know that she wasn’t really looking at us, but I felt that she was.”

Her husband, Kaoru, said the performance was strange, but in a good way.

From close up, he said he could tell it was a robot, but its presence made him feel as if it were a live singing event: If there had been only three people playing instruments while the vocals played over the speakers, it would have been a quite different performance, he said.

Ishiguro’s humanoid robots have been displayed at a variety of venues, where they talk and respond to onlookers. His research focuses on the nature of humanity, which he explores by devising lifelike machines.

The jazz robot’s show was a one-off, but those who missed it can find the robot interacting with visitors at a cafe in the Marunouchi Building on Saturday and Sunday.