Out in the Open

Roll over Beethoven, robot composers might be coming after your job

You might think real creativity is the exclusive domain of humanity, but researchers are pushing closer to artificial intelligence that can make real art.
Mason Bretan jams with his trio of soul-robots. (YouTube)

There's this feeling that you only get from art. Like when you're reading a passage from a book and there's a plot twist, or a piece of dialogue that's so impossibly inventive that you wonder, where did that even come from?

Or how just when you think that every great musical idea has been taken and then you hear a new song with a melodic turn that you never heard coming and you get a lump in your throat. It's the feeling of humans conveying complicated feelings to other humans through incredibly complex arrangements of sounds and words and pictures. It's one of the traits we think of as distinctly human. 

But maybe not for long. All around the world, there are people trying to give away that distinction. They're trying to teach machines to create original music. And as you might guess, this idea can make people react pretty strongly.

David Cope has been working on artificial musical intelligence for decades and for just as long, he's been taking it on the chin. 
Thank goodness I appreciate criticism, and I enjoy attacks.- David Cope

The attacks and criticism Cope gets often take the form of YouTube comments below music he has posted.

To be clear, the music was not created by robots, but was composed with the assistance of computer programs that Cope created. But even the notion of artificial computers having a role in creating art makes people uncomfortable and even hostile. 

Cope says part of that hostility is based on a fundamental misapprehension of what's involved in artificial musical intelligence as it exists now. For the moment, he says that we haven't achieved artificial intelligence that is truly autonomously creative. 

There are tests meant to test whether true artificial intelligence has been achieved.

There's the famous Turing test, where the computer passes if it can converse with a human without them knowing its a computer it passes. And more recently, the Lovelace Test named for Victorian mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Way back in 1843, Lovelace stated that a computer could never have intelligence in a meaningful way, because it would always be limited by its human created programming. In order to pass the Lovelace test, a computer would need to create something original, something that could not have been anticipated by the programmers.

Mason Bretan says we're not there yet, when it comes to robot creativity. 

Bretan not only teaches computers to create compositions. He engineers and programs machines to physically play instruments, like marimbas. And then he plays music along with the robots. He says that the music from the robots can push creativity in new directions. 

"The stuff that's coming back at me might be something I've never heard before just because a robot is playing it."

So for Mason the interaction with the robots is spurring him in surprising musical directions, which might get us part way to a passing grade on the Lovelace test.

There are many positive comments under the videos of Mason performing with robots, but one really stands out.
It reads, "It should be illegal, you are teaching these robots to play music, and then what? Take over the world or something? WAKE UP PEOPLE"

David Cope says that those fears are misplaced. He regards artificial intelligence as ultimately the expression of human creative thinking. He believes that we will one day achieve true robot creativity and that it will be a good thing.

"I'm just giving us a choice. In the past we've had human creativity. If we give it to machines, if we're smart enough to be able to give that aspect of our lives to machines, we are in fact expanding our life and our choices."

This story originally aired on October 29, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Can Robots Be Human?".