Robot Music: Play It Again, Shimon

Gil Weinberg, the director of the music technology program at Georgia Tech, spends much of his life researching ways technology can expand musical expression. Weinberg created a robot, Shimon, that plays the marimba and can improvise like Thelonious Monk.

"The whole idea is to use computer algorithms to create music in a way that humans would never create," says Weinberg to All Things Considered's Robert Siegel. "Our motto is: listen like a human, but improvise like a machine."

Siegel spoke with Weinberg about a recent event billed as the first intercontinental musical interaction between humans and a robot. The people were in Japan and Shimon (the robot) was at home in Atlanta, Georgia with its marimba. (Interesting... usually the robots are in Japan.)

Shimon is pretty extraordinary, it does this funky head bob when it registers a musical beat. It's that head bob you're familiar with if you've ever watched a jazz drummer or a DJ spinning a good hip-hop record.

Anyone with access to an iPhone can jam with Shimon, that's all the musicians in Japan were using. And you don't even have to be a musician. Basically, you create a track using the iPhone app, ZOOZbeat, play it for Shimon, Shimon repeats it and then starts gettin' super funky with the marimba.

Watch Shimon get down and let us know if he can jam like a jazz great, or if he has the musical ability of a soulless machine. NPR Music's jazz expert, Patrick Jarenwattananon says, "the answer, of course, is both."

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