Roblog: Beat Bots

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robots and artificial intelligence. If science fiction comes true the robot apocalypse is impending, and it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

Many people are afraid that robots are going to take their jobs. Some people, like those who work in manufacturing, are terrified. At least the creative industries can feel safe, right? The fearful among us shouldn’t feel so sure. While robots are still lousy at writing, they’re starting to really get the hang of playing music.

After playing three tours, Compressorhead took to the stage at an Australian music festival alongside big bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Animal Collective. The hard-hitting metal band, however, isn’t just another bunch of head-banging guys; they’re robots. A three-piece band of vaguely humanoid robots sporting shades and mohawks, the robot band plays covers of popular songs like “I Love Rock and Roll” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” to thrilled audiences.

Troy Rogers of the Expressive Machines Musical Instruments group is part of the team responsible for the robot band. In an interview with NPR, Rogers explained that although the robots are preprogrammed to play the songs, their performance truly is live as they respond to their surroundings with changes in pitch and rhythm. Even Roger said that he “didn’t know what they were gonna play, [the human performers] didn’t know what the robots were gonna do.” This responsive element, in addition to the robots expressive head-banging and hip-swaying makes Compressorhead a consistent crowd favorite.

Some musical robots have even more improvisational capabilities. Shimon, a robotic marimba player, can scan existing sheet music and use that information to play his own improvisations. It makes for an equally impressive performance, even though it’s not as hard-hitting. Guy Hoffman, himself a musician and a former fellow at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, played a live jazz improvisational performance with the robot. Shimon attempts to match his rhythm and style to his human counterpart. Shimon isn’t perfect, but he does manage to create great music.

Robots can potentially play even better than humans, with added appendages for playing many notes at once and quickly moving parts. Shimon, for example, can play 8 notes in unison, though it’s easy to imagine even more complicated robots. With such talented robots, should musicians have to fear for their jobs too? Not yet, thinks Hoffman. If we “use the things that robots are good at and the things humans are good at,” Hoffman says, robots and humans can work together. If his duet with Shimon is any indication, the results can be impressive.

Some people are taking making music with robots to an even more collaborative level. Yuri Suzuki, a sound designer, struggles with music due to his dyslexia. Although he cannot read sheet music, he has a passion for making music. With the Looks Like Music project, a collaboration with sound programmer Mark McKeague, Suzuki hoped to expose people to a new way of making music that was easy and accessible to everyone.

The Colour Chaser robots each have a different shape that corresponds to different sounds, one robot for percussion, another for bass, and more. The robots follow along black lines. As they come across colored line segments, they interpret different colors as different tones to play. The robots were displayed on an interactive exhibit in Luxembourg on large white scrolls of paper where people could draw their own patterns for the robots to interpret. The humans, in some sense, compose the music with their drawings, while the robots act as a little orchestra that plays their compositions. The project allows people who struggle with sheet music to create music in a unique way, in addition to facilitating positive interaction between robots and humans.

It’s true that robots are getting more skilled everyday. As human ability to create more interesting robots develops, the amount of human tasks that robots can perform increases as well. While it might sound scary that robots are becoming more like us, the potential for meaningful collaboration is incredible. As Hoffman said, there are some tasks that robots are simply better at. In music, it might be playing quick or complex compositions too difficult for a human musician. In manufacturing, it might be lifting huge pieces of material that would otherwise strain the human body. There are still many tasks that humans are best at. When robots and humans use their strengths together, however, like in The Colour Chaser project, the results can be beneficial to humans (and pretty cool to watch, too).

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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