The Military Is Teaching Its Robots To Play Jazz

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The Military teaches its robots to do all sorts of things—Walk through minefields, deactivate bombs, clear out hostile buildings. They’re given some pretty serious tasks. But would you ever guess these military robots have a creative side?

Researchers at the University of Arizona and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), are developing jazz-playing robots, not to play music on the battlefield, but to teach us a thing or two about human-computer interaction.

The new project, called MUSICA (short for Musical Improvising Collaborative Agent) aims to develop a musical device that can improvise a jazz solo in response to human musicians, just as real jazz players normally improvise alongside one another.

So how do you teach a mathematical mind to be creative? Machines learn by doing, and what do they do best? Algorithms.

The front end of the computer system listens to the human player and analyzes what’s being played, like pitch, beat, and rhythm. This gets fed to the back end, which is an artificial intelligence system that’s tapped into a database of jazz solos.

The system analyzes incoming music the same way that it analyzes the jazz solos, using image schema as the mechanism. In real time, the system then plays back the jazz music that it “thinks” is within the boundary, based on what it’s learned about the solos.

It seems far-fetched, but the idea just might work because jazz impov is cognitive, not linguistic. Jazz players react instinctively (and anyone who’s been to a live jazz performance knows that to be true), meaning the music isn’t pre-planned or practiced.

Applying this same musical method to communication on the battlefield could make interactions between humans and machines a lot deeper.

Language-based interactions with computers are limited and often misinterpreted. (Wouldn’t it be nice if you asked Siri for directions to the town over and she didn’t try to take you 5 countries over?)

If we could get robots to think instinctively, and in real time, we could see major advancements in military warfare in years to come.

It could be some time before we see these robots jamming with humans on stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest (DARPA’s project is a 5 year one) but when they’re ready to play, I’m there.

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