DARPA Is Building Jazz-Playing Robots


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

3164 DARPA Is Building Jazz-Playing Robots

Jazz can be beautifully eccentric, evoking subtle emotions in the listener; other times, it’s a bit of a mess. It’ll be difficult, then, to predict what kind of quality of music will flow from the U.S. military’s new creations: Their scientific and technological wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is building jazz-playing robots, as reported by Live Science. Seriously, I’m not making this up.

Specifically, DARPA has given a sizable grant to Kelland Thomas, the associate director of the University of Arizona’s School of Information – and a jazz musician – so that he can develop robots that actually create and improvise jazz music. The project will be called MUSICA: Musical Improvising Collaborative Agent. Its ultimate aim? To perform its own jazz solo in time with a human musician, in the same way that real jazz musicians improvise and keep time with each other. He will be working with Ben Grosser, an assistant professor of new media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who's also a jazz musician.


A database of jazz solos from a wide range of musicians will be created and given to the robot, allowing it to analyze the recordings to figure out the musical processes that occur when the musicians play. Specifically, the improvisation of the jazz musicians will be picked apart in an attempt to make the seemingly unpredictable progression of notes predictable to a machine. If jazz musicians can keep up with each other, then why can’t a robot?

The complexities of the pieces, including their beat, pitch, harmony and rhythm, will be scoured over by the robot, and its own improvised solos will be assembled using this information.

But why in the name of Louis Armstrong is the U.S. military hoping to make jazz-playing robots? Well, what they are ultimately looking for is a robotic device that is able to dynamically respond to the behavior of a human companion in real time.

Music does not necessarily require lyrics – spoken words – and it’s a form of communication that is inherently instinctive. “When it comes to jazz, you feel the music as much as you hear and think about it – you react instinctively to things that are going on,” Grosser pointed out in a recent statement. So jazz music – which can be naturally erratic and off-tempo – is a good analog for the complex, highly variable, rapidly changing nuances of human behavior in general.


Grosser continued: “Our goal is to by next summer present a 'call and answer' system to DARPA, where I can play a line of music, and the system will analyze that line and give an answer as close to real time as possible.”

DARPA hopes that this type of robot will evolve into a machine that can learn how to instantly respond to human soldiers on the robotic-flavored battlefields of the future.

So how good will this robot be at playing the notoriously temperamental melodies of jazz? “Let's face it – trying to develop a system that can play jazz is a crazy idea,” Grosser said. “It's not going to be Miles Davis.”

Well, that’s legitimately disappointing. DARPA can keep working on developing their vampire drones in the meantime, I guess.


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  • robots,

  • music,

  • military,

  • DARPA,

  • jazz,

  • battlefield