Human creativity always wins – for now

New Zealand’s ingenuity seems limitless these days. Back in 2012 a graduate student at Victoria University, in my own city of Wellington, invented a robot bass guitar. Awesome or what? Here’s the instrument – MechBass – playing ‘Hysteria’:

Soon, the same machine is going to perform as part of an ensemble:

That’s extremely geeky and extremely amazing. It also shows how good Kiwis are at doing cool stuff, and boy do I wish more of us would do more of it. And this incredible robot begs a question. Will a machine ever really replace a human musician?

For me that comes down to creativity. Can robots improvise music on the fly? Can they spark off each other’s talents creatively while playing? I suspect not – yet. Doubtless an algorithm could be written – and some software already does just that for MIDI-implemented systems. I’ve used some of it myself. But it’s limited by the framework of the algorithm. Humans still add something machines cannot, however incredible the machine might be.

Here’s Tal Wilkenfeld – an Australian bass player who’s been taking the US by storm for the past decade, working with Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, Toto, Vinnie Colaiuta, Zappa Plays Zappa, and others. Video is 1:01 long:

The other main example of humans vs robot musicians is the drum machine. Remember them? They were going to make human drummmers obsolete back in the eighties. And the Linn drum machine certainly helped define the sound of Brit synth-pop – think Echo and the Bunnymen (‘Echo’ was the drum machine) or the Sisters of Mercy  – whose drum machine was known as ‘Doktor Avalanche’.

The idea might have worked long-term if the role of a drummer was merely to bang out some kind of mechanical auto-rhythm over which ‘real’ music was then played .

Of course that’s never been the case. Drums are a musical instrument, just like any other, and need to be properly written for and played. Here’s Terry Bozzio proving the point. Click and listen to the first thirty seconds or so…

And that’s why drum machines have gone the same way as digital watches and all the other ‘ways of the future’ that the eighties brought us. Yah. Also the digitally-recorded ‘loops’ of the early 2000s.

When it comes to flexible creativity, humans win. For now, anyway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


7 thoughts on “Human creativity always wins – for now

  1. Amazing! As someone who loves music and is a little geeky, I really loved this post. It was great fun, but it also highlights some of the unspoken issues to do with AI, such as the unpredictability of humans vs machines. That unpredictability is, I believe, part of what gives us our creativity, and both stem from feeling, not logic.

    1. Yes, it’s the indefinable emotional content that machines lack. Years ago I played around with some software – ‘Band in a Box’, which used algorithms to ‘create’ music in particular playing styles, around chord structures defined by the user. I believe it’s been massively expanded since, including with sampled solos by well known musicians – which, inevitably, add that sense of ‘feeling’ that the algorithm, however sophisticated it may be, will always lack. As always I had to admire the amazing geekiness of the software…

      1. -grin- Yes! I looked at that guitar-bot and thought, that’s one big guitar to have to carry around. And then I thought, hang on, as a band ‘member’ it would probably take up less space than a body. 🙂
        Re the music though, I think we can create machines that will ‘play’ a given piece perfectly [however you want to define that], but there is a world of difference between execution and composition, and that makes me feel good. 🙂

        1. MechBass is still probably cheaper than a session bass player… 🙂 Apropos execution vs human composition – totally! I’d take that further, actually – I think there’s difference between execution and execution of music, too. One has but to listen to Dinu Lipatti’s 1950 rendering of the Hess arrangement of Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, especially vs the MIDI version I once constructed, which will never be inflicted on humanity, (almost) no matter how much cash I am offered 🙂

          1. lmao – humanity thanks you. 😉 But I kind of disagree about the execution. Let’s say a music-bot were created that could ‘listen’ to a great musician and /replicate/ every sound, right down to the last tone. How would we know which was which, other than via a repeat performance at which the human musician would change things in some way while the bot didn’t?
            I don’t think we can ever compete with a bot in terms of ‘perfection’, but innovation is a different story.

  2. The rise of the superstar DJ provides a glimpse into where machines might take over. Having a machine that can create a three hour trance setlist wouldn’t really take anything away from what the DJ does; controlling the crowd and the ambience. People tend not to expect musicians at dance events.

    It’s when we expect to see musicians – bands, orchestras, soloists – that machines will struggle to gain recognition beyond curiosity. We want that human connection to the musician, whether it’s Joe Satriani or Neil Peart. We struggle to empathise with machines no matter what they’re doing.

    1. You’re right. Humanity counts – and it’s something far more subtle than the mechanics of musical notation. I spent years doing the Royal Schools stuff, but the fact remains that the ‘language’ of it doesn’t actually convey the reality of a human performance. Yet that ‘language’ is the way our mechanical systems must be programmed, via MIDI (usually), to ‘perform’. Even ‘humanising’, via algorithmic variations on MIDI sync timing, doesn’t actually do it to the human ear.

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