I love robots, I really do, but I am also aware the in a not so distant future our abilities as humans won’t match up to theirs. This post will not be the first where I introduce yet another astonishing video of artificial intelligence fiddling around with music, but this just crosses a line (Wired’s Listening Post put me on to this).
Yeah fine the Toyota robots can play progressive jazz rock, and the Honda bot conducted The Detroit Symphony Orchestra. No big deal, Jbot from Captured by Robots had already programmed a whole robot-band to play thrash metal a couple of years ago. All of this is very impressive, no doubt about it, but it’s all about mechanical engineering and computer programming. Someone with enough brain power and a healthy dose of patience can accomplish this.
The video you are about to see is something different, something more mind-boggling and disturbing. Before you go and launch the player, lets take a look at what the Turing Test is and how robots are almost mastering it.
In a few words, the test (conceptualized by mathematician Alan Turing in 1950 who in the early thirties laid the groundwork for modern computer science) depicts a machine’s ability to demonstrate intelligence. I will let Wikipedia explain how it works: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which try to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. In order to test the machine’s intelligence rather than its ability to render words into audio, the conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen.
To be more precise, Alan Turing decided that to pass the test, a specific robot judged by different interrogators had to fool at least 30% of them. In October of this year, a competition took place in Berkshire and the winner, Elbot, got 3 judges out of 12 making them think he was a human being representing a 25% success rate, so he missed it by 5% (to this day no robot has ever passed the test). Elbot doesn’t really fool you in front of your computer screen, but coherent conversations can and actually often do take place.
The turing test was devised only for written examinations, but its concept and principles can be applied to almost anything, including music. In Captured by Robots’ case (or in the Honda and Toyota bots’ cases), pure programming makes their actions possible. There is no real interaction between the humans and the bots. In the case of a real Turing Test there is an interaction: a question leads to a response, an action leads to another and so on. Kind of like how IBM’s Big Blue defeated chess master Gary Kasparov in 1997, although the later often claimed his could tell the difference between how humans and computers played.
But with music, which is extremely mathematical, being sure of this difference has practically become impossible as this video demonstrates:
Eliot Van Buskirk from Wired’s Listening post declared that robots passed the musical Turing Test and I agree. How could you possibly tell the difference? These robots are improvising for god’s sake, learning what the humans are doing on the spot. Scary impressive (I am listening to the 70′ French psychedelic band Gong as I’m typing this article and can’t help but wonder how long before bots will come up with this type of music). Music is a hard enough business as it is. When robots will come into play, armed with implants that will instantly feed them enormous databases of music resources allowing them to comprehend and perform extremely deep and complex music within seconds, we had better have buckets of water ready.