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Can a robot feel? Humanoid opera singer takes on touchy role

Myon the humanoid robot has spent two years preparing for its starring role in "My Square Lady." With that kind of artistic commitment, we can probably forgive it if it sounds a tad tinny.

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Komische Oper

Don't be surprised if you attend the new opera "My Square Lady" and find the star's performance a bit stiff. That's to be expected when a robot takes the stage.

The opera, running through July 5 at the Komische Oper in Berlin, features a singing humanoid about the size of an 8-year-old in a reimagining of the classic Broadway musical "My Fair Lady." This time, instead of commoner Eliza Doolittle being trained in the ways of high society, it's Myon the robot attempting to learn what it means to be human.

News of Myon as opera star probably shouldn't worry Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman just yet, however. Myon, like most of the other robotic performers we've seen so far, appears in a piece specifically designed to explore the complex interface of man and machine -- and what, indeed, separates the two in a world where robots are increasingly taking over human tasks.

Komische Oper

"My Square Lady," according to the opera's producers, explores questions such as What makes a person a person? How could an object or a simple life form be transformed into one? What are emotions and why do we need them? Does a robot need them, too?

German/British art collective Gob Squad collaborated on the avant-garde production, and the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory at Berlin's Humboldt University created Myon, a 4-foot, 1-inch (approximately 1.2-meter) modular autonomous humanoid whose 48 actuators control 32 degrees of freedom.

Myon -- developed as part of a larger European initiative aimed at studying cognition and language capabilities in robots -- learned from its human counterparts during two years of rehearsals. According to its fellow performers, the 35-pound (16-kilogram) bot has made great progress as a performer.

In the beginning, "he was sitting in front of us on a chair and that was it. He could do nothing more than just sit and stare at us," Bernhard Hansky, a singer from the opera, told Motherboard. "But in these last two years, he's acquired knowledge about human behaviors and he is now able to do stuff by himself."

Stuff like shuffle across the stage, respond to visual cues and sing along with its human counterparts and the orchestra. At one point in the production, which runs runs 2 hours and 45 minutes, the orchestra's conductor must pace musicians according to Myon's singing.

"The opera is about showing the robot what it means to be a human being with emotions," Hansky said. "Every piece that we sing for him in the show is about a different emotion."

With its starring role, Myon joins a roster of other up-and-coming robot stage stars, including RoboJase the robot comedian and Repliee S1, who last year starred in a modern take on Franz Kafka's absurdist classic "The Metamorphosis."

Watch the trailer below to get a sense of what "My Square Lady" audiences will see onstage as Myon explores opera as a "power plant of emotion" and gives hope to all the robot opera-divas-to-be out there working so hard to tune up their pipes.