Thursday, January 24, 2008

The End Of The World As We Know It?

Maybe I am slow to pick up on this. I only just stumbled on this on YouTube, but I gather it's been making the news for over a year now - a series of robots from Toyota that can play musical instruments. This trumpeter is positively creepy.

You may remember that Kurt Vonnegut's very first novel, Player Piano, warned of the alienation and anomie that might tear society apart when all human labour is replaced by machines. An automaton like this makes that day seem not so far away, after all. Though I don't think anyone's developed one that can farm rice yet, so the poorest 70% of the world's population is still in a job.

The Disney medley the metal critter plays below is just awesome. Well, OK, its phrasing might be just a teeny bit, er, mechanical at times, but its control of pitch is improbably perfect: not a hint of a cracked note anywhere. How on earth does it control its embouchure?? It looks as if it's just blowing air through a rigid round hole - surely that can't work? I am inclined to suspect that this is just an elaborate hoax. Have there been any exposé stories I missed out on? Ah well, draw your own conclusions. There are several other clips of it in action (for example, here and here...... and here, if you can stand "I just called to say I love you"), but I think this is the best.

And just to remind you what proper trumpet playing sounds like, here again is that sublime piece of Chet Baker I posted on the Barstool last week.


Anonymous said...

I didn't watch the vid, but I assume the robot just plays what it knows or learns. can it innovate? isn't art about going beyond the process of producing a tune and jumping into the unknown of creative thought? A musical robot is just another 8-track, cassette, or CD.

so, rice farmers and musicians will always survive.

Froog said...

Producing the sound from the instrument live is always going to have a quality that electronic reproduction doesn't; I think this is a very different experience from just listening to a CD.

I imagine, though,that the robot is just replicating a pattern of notes exactly as laid down by a human player. It would be cool if they could program it with enough sophistication to enable it to make choices about which notes to play and how to play them, but I should think that must still be quite some way off.

I not even convinced the robot is really playing - how on earth does it control the flow of air that finely? If the engineers have cracked that, it must involve some very nifty feedback processes.

Listen to it. It is uncannily good. But Tin Man here will never have the poignancy of Chet Baker, even if he could play exactly the same notes in exactly the same way.

Anonymous said...

What do you have against very thin men/women wearing a metal suit and playing music??

Earthling (on holiday)

Froog said...

Ha-ha. I wish it were that simple, Earthling. But I don't think anybody is that thin - look at the neck-tube on the thing.

If it is a con - which I slightly-more-than-half suspect - I think it's got to be some sort of very sophisticated music reproduction system inside the robot's head (sounds like it's "playing" the trumpet, but actually it's just a funnel for a very good miniature loudspeaker).