Will robots replace musicians?

Yesterday, while wondering whether a computer could write a book, I noted that computer software is already composing music. This reminded me of a friend of mine who has a MIDI piano. It’s a standard acoustic piano, but can be fed a digital MIDI file which it will then actually play, in the same way that old player pianos of yore would “play” a role of perforated paper. Being that you can now craft fairly nuanced performances of music using MIDI, it would appear that a composer can write quite beautiful music and have no need of an actual pianist to perform or record it.

I started wondering if this idea could be applied to other instruments. Could you create a robotic type device that could be fed MIDI input and then play the music on a trumpet or guitar? Probably not now, but I suspect the day is coming. With a stringed instrument like a guitar or violin, a robotic hand would have to fret the notes on the neck, and then use another robotic hand to pluck or bow the string. Brass instruments might be a little trickier, since much of the nuance of the tone is created by the ever shifting ways that the performer breathes and employs his or her embouchure. Nonetheless, I suspect it could be done.

Neo-Luddites might say, “but could a robot play music with the delicate sensitivity of a human?” Well, I’ve been messing around with writing classical style MIDI piano compositions, and I have to say, the performances end up sounding remarkably real. Part of it is, I think, having a range of velocities used to hit the notes — some louder than others. You can also tweak the tempo so the music speeds and slows with the dynamics. Being conscious of these two attributes of music — velocity and tempo — is fundamentally what people are referring to when they talk about “sensitive” playing.

So, if robots can replace musicians, what does that mean for the future? I imagine musicians will be cast out on the street, forced to approach strangers and beg for a few tuppence to play a tune. And the stranger will say, “I’m sorry, my XTRO-2000 here is quite capable of rendering the most beautiful music.” And the musician will scream, “the XTRO-2000 is a queer!” And the XTRO-2000 will say, “Technically, as a robotic device, I have no gender and therefore cannot be homosexual. But please do not malign my character. I am very sensitive.” And the musician will scream, “I hate you, XTRO-2000!” And the musician’s wife will appear and say, “Bob, I am having an affair with the XTRO-2000. He… it… whatever, is capable of making love to be in ways you could never dream of.”

I have seen the future.

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