From Terminator to Virtuoso — the Pentagon is Developing a Jazz-Playing Robot

Imagine the most creative, intelligent, and innovative minds at the Pentagon using the government’s vast resources to build a cutting-edge robot. What will this mechanical marvel look like? What will it do? Surely, we are talking about something out of the video game MechWarrior or even the unstoppable killing machine in Terminator.

#Terminator #MechWarrior
Terminator (left) from the 1984 science fiction film of the same name. A BattleMech (right) from the Activision series of video games “MechWarrior.”

If this prospect gives you nightmares, perhaps you should relax to the comforting sound of jazz. The source of that music could be the very robot that disturbed your sleep in the first place. Despite your worst fears, the robot under development bears more of a resemblance to Louis Armstrong than to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The initiative is the Musical Improvising Collaborative Agent (MUSICA). Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it seeks to develop a technological device capable of improvising a jazz solo in response to human partners, just as real jazz musicians improvise alongside one another.

DARPA is the branch of the U.S. military that is charged with developing new technologies. Among the things developed under its oversight is BigDog, the somewhat-terrifying quadruped robot that looks like fuel for many nightmares. Ultimately, BigDog was shelved because it was deemed to be too loud for combat.

BigDog in action.

MUSICA seemingly goes in the opposite direction of BigDog. The sound to be generated by MUSICA is supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable. Its role in combat, however, remains a bit obscure.

The premise of the project is the explore new ways people can interact with computers and robots. Ben Grosser, an assistant professor of new media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his colleague Kelland Thomas, an associate professor of music at the University of Arizona, are exploring how people can communicate with one another without language. “That could make interactions between humans and machines a lot deeper,” said Grosser, who himself is a jazz trumpeter. “When it comes to jazz, you feel the music as much as you hear and think about it—you react instinctively to things that are going on.”

The researchers admit the project may not immediately seem to have national defense significance. DARPA is hopeful, however, that MUSICA will do more than provide some jazzy songs. In the process of developing this technological marvel, it is hoped that it will open doors in artificial intelligence and give greater insight into human creativity.

Ultimately, Grosser hoped this research could shed light on the nature of the creative process. “By finding the limits of computational creativity, we can get a different understanding of human creativity, on our own creative processes,” Grosser said.

MUSICA was launched in 2015 as a 5-year program, slated to cost $2 million. Attempts at finding a progress report have produced the musical sound of silence (not to be confused with the copyrighted sound of silence). One can only conclude that the results were less than favorable or that they were so fantastic that they have been classified as top secret. If you happen to have any information about the success or failure of MUSICA, please let us know.

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