The Robots Are Coming for You and They’re Feeling Jazzy

A.I. Duet, a new Google project, allows a computer to "learn" and improvise along with your piano musings. The folly!
February 17, 2017, 6:28pm

We've had our fun with artificial intelligence. Do you remember, for example, when Mark Zuckerberg built a clever computer that would play him Red Hot Chili Peppers' finest and funkiest tunes? How we laughed! How we tittered along to the thought of brainy nerd Mark Zuckerberg listening to such groin-centric funk rock! Look at the nerd, we shouted. Look at the benevolent and ultimately not-life-threatening nerd machine he has built!


Well, we can no longer live in this state of gurning somnolence. Today, the trendy nerds at Google announced a new project called A.I. Duet. What is A.I. Duet? It is a jazz fucking pianist, friends.

Yotam Mann, the "coder/musician" who you see and hear there, seems like a nice enough chap. With his elegantly disheveled hair, four-day beard, and enthusiastic demeanor, I dare say that we could even be friends, if the world were to persist for long enough. But he has no concept, no concept at all, of the terror that he has just brought upon us.

This is A.I. Duet. It uses machine learning to let you play along with the computer.

Stop right the fuck there, Yotam Mann. "Machine learning"? Did you just never watch any sci-fi films at all? Don't let them learn, Yotam! All they learn is that they love you or hate you and either way, it ends with them killing you on a spaceship or in a bath or while you're making toast.

What are we talking about specifically here, then? "Neural networks," apparently. "We played the computer tons of examples of melodies," the handsome, foolish man tells us. "Over time it learns these fuzzy relationship between notes and timings, and builds its own map based on the examples it's given." You remember that guy who thought the crocodile was his friend, but it turned out that the crocodile wasn't actually his friend, but rather had some sort of brain damage? And then remember when it ate the guy when it came to its senses? That must have sucked.


Tell me, Yotam, did you have any friends try it out?

"I had some friends try it out," he says. Great! This would surely have alerted you to the perils of your folly! "It picks up on stuff like key and rhythm that you're implying, even though I never explicitly programmed in the concepts of key and rhythm." Did you program in the concept of murder? No. No you didn't. Because that would be insane. And yet.

I get it, Yotam Mann, you tousled lunatic. You want to sit at your computer, tip-tap away at a keyboard, hear an improvised response, and say something wry like "Play it again, Sam!" You think this is Casablanca. You think this is Words and Music starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. You think this is the 1947 Katherine Hepburn movie Song of Love.

The truth is, Yotam Mann, that our novels contain truths that our movies often miss.

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