Has Emily Howell Passed the Musical Turing Test?

By | March 26, 2010

Has Emily Howell Passed the Musical Turing TestHere is a classical sounding song written by a computer.

Emily Howell is the daughter program of Emmy (Experiments in Musical Intelligence — sometimes spelled EMI), a music composing program written by David Cope, Dickerson Emeriti Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Emily Howell’s interesting ramblings about music are actually the result of a set of computer queries. Her music, however, is something else again: completely original and hauntingly beautiful. Even a classical purist might have trouble determining whether a human being or an AI program created it. Judge for yourself:

I liked this article. Will there eventually be a Beatles of artificial song writing?  I think so.

David Cope’s software creates beautiful, original music. Why are people so angry about that?

Though musicians and composers were often skeptical, Cope soon attracted worldwide notice, especially from scientists interested in artificial intelligence and the small, promising field called artificial creativity. Other “AC” researchers have written programs that paint pictures; that tell Mexican folk tales or write detective novels; and that come up with funny jokes. They have varying goals, though most seek to better understand human creativity by modeling it in a machine.

To many in the AC community, including the University of Sussex’s Margaret Boden, doyenne of the field, Emmy was an incredible accomplishment. There’s a test, named for World War II-era British computer scientist Alan Turing, that’s a simple check for so-called artificial intelligence: whether or not a person interacting with a machine and a human can tell the difference. Given its success in “the game,” it could be argued that Emmy passed the Turing Test.

Cope had taken an unconventional approach. Many artificial creativity programs use a more sophisticated version of the method Cope first tried with Bach. It’s called intelligent misuse — they program sets of rules, and then let the computer introduce randomness. Cope, however, had stumbled upon a different way of understanding creativity.

In his view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination.

In Cope’s fascinating hovel of a home office on a Wednesday afternoon, I ask him how exactly he knows that’s true. Just because he built a program that can write music using his model, how can he be so certain that that’s the way man creates?

Cope offers a simple thought experiment: Put aside the idea that humans are spiritually and creatively endowed, because we’ll probably never fully be able to understand that. Just look at the zillions of pieces of music out there.

“Where are they going to come up with sounds that they themselves create without hearing them first?” he asks. “If they’re hearing them for the first time, what’s the author of them? Is it birds, is it airplane sounds?”

Of course, some composers probably have taken dictation from birds. Yet the most likely explanation, Cope believes, is that music comes from other works composers have heard, which they slice and dice subconsciously and piece together in novel ways. How else could a style like classical music last over three or four centuries?

To prove his point, Cope has even reverse-engineered works by famous composers, tracing the tropes, phrases and ideas back to compositions by their forebears.

“Nobody’s original,” Cope says. “We are what we eat, and in music, we are what we hear….Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together.”

Cope’s claims, taken to their logical conclusions, disturb a lot of people. One of them is Douglas Hofstadter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cognitive scientist at Indiana University and a reluctant champion of Cope’s work. As Hofstadter has recounted in dozens of lectures around the globe during the past two decades, Emmy really scares him.

Like many arts aficionados, Hofstadter views music as a fundamental way for humans to communicate profound emotional information. Machines, no matter how sophisticated their mathematical abilities, should not be able to possess that spiritual power. As he wrote in Virtual Music, an anthology of debates about Cope’s research, Hofstadter worries Emmy proves that “things that touch me at my deepest core — pieces of music most of all, which I have always taken as direct soul-to-soul messages — might be effectively produced by mechanisms thousands if not millions of times simpler than the intricate biological machinery that gives rise to a human soul.” …
via Has Emily Howell Passed the Musical Turing Test? | h+ Magazine.

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