NPR logo A Robot That Improvises Like Thelonious Monk

A Robot That Improvises Like Thelonious Monk

Meet Shimon:

He/she/it — let's go with "it" — plays the marimba, and "improvises" based on your interaction with it. Like all things these days, you can jam with it via an iPhone app called ZOOZBeat.

Shimon is at the center of an All Things Considered interview today, and an accompanying blog post at All Tech Considered. The good people at ATC and ATC — right — asked readers, and me in particular, to comment if Shimon "can jam like a jazz great, or if he has the musical ability of a soulless machine."

The answer, of course, is both.

This here robot certainly knows its John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk well enough. When it's asked to play that lick a la Coltrane, it develops a few arpeggiated, running bursts that remind me of 'Trane circa 1960. When it morphs back to Monk style, we get those signature epileptic jabs decorating the melody. (It helps that the input is somewhat jagged to begin with, but still ...)

This isn't particularly surprising. We call Coltrane and Monk inimitable, but their idiosyncrasies don't transcend the laws of physics. A sufficiently precise computer program could study the salient parts of their various approaches and create models to replicate them — in fact, one just did.

Of course, the whole appeal of jazz is that humans devise these approaches, and interact with each other, in ways that you'd need a far, far more complicated model to predict. Furthermore, one of the implicit goals of jazz improvisation is to show off your individual style, as opposed to copying those of others. So I'm glad to report the robot apocalypse isn't upon us yet.

Not to say that one couldn't find a "soulful" way to perform with Shimon. There is something oddly "jazz" about it: You give it a call, it spits back a not entirely predictable response that a human might never actually think of. Imagine if some enterprising musician were to devise some sort of game piece involving a flotilla of similar robot musicians.

But enough about Pat Metheny already.