Tag Archives: documentary

Can computers compose?

This Thursday, my latest BBC Radio 4 documentary, Can Computers Write Shakespeare is broadcast. The programme asks whether computers can ever be truly creative, using sculpture, music and poetry as examples.

As a teenager, I wrote a computer program that composed ragtime music using simple probability tables, i.e. if the current note is an A what is the probability the next note is B,C, D etc. The notes were selected by rolling a dice. I then superimposed the structure and rhythms of ragtime to these melodies. This produced music that had the jaunty lilt of ragtime, but it wasn’t something you’d listen to for very long because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The Radio 4 documentary focuses on a much better computer composing system, IAMUS (‘Other computer composers are available’). The video below shows the world premiere of Adsum, a piece entirely composed and orchestrated by the machine.

As you can hear, IAMUS usually creates modern classical music. This is done by mimicking the processes in Darwinian evolution. IAMUS started with a very simple population of musical genomes that were just a handful of notes that lasted a few seconds. Through a process of breeding and mutation, IAMUS has produced new compositions that are longer and more elaborate. The computer is given very few guidelines beyond ensuring the notes remain within the range of the musical instruments. It is like watching a student composer develop their compositional style, where the computer is working on its own without human input for musical ideas.

One of the most fascinating things I learnt while making this documentary was that many of those working in computational creativity are not that interested in the Turing Test. They’re not interested in testing whether a computer algorithm can create art that can pass as human-generated. So, when we got experts to critique the music and poetry, they were told it was computer generated to begin with.

The simple act of telling them that the music or poetry was written by a computer changed how they perceived it, and part of that prejudice appears to be unconscious. When Steinbeis and Koelsch compared which regions of the brain were stimulated by computer and human composed music in an fMRI scanner [doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn110], they found that the regions of the brain associated with ascribing intention to others is less active with computer composed music. Maybe an indication that however good computers get at composition, they will always fall short of fulfilling the need for art to be about communication between humans.

You can buy IAMUS from online music stores. Will you be buying it?

Postscript: One thing that was lost on the cutting room floor was IBM’s attempts to churn out new and innovative recipes using computers. Would you fancy Swiss-Thai asparagus quiche?