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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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For reasons unknown, Microsoft’s AI is making music

Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 1.37.53 AM
For reasons unknown, Microsoft’s AI is making music

Let’s start by noting that lots of seemingly sentient humans are not great at music. Consider, for instance, the members of Hoobastank, who are both human and musically grating. The real test of artificial intelligence might therefore be whether a series of expensive computers can produce a series of tolerable atonalities.

Well, here’s some good news for the future of technology: Microsoft’s FlowComposer AI tool recently produced some entirely tolerable music.

This landmark victory comes with a disclaimer, however: While the music was composed by AI, “French composer Benoît Carré arranged and produced the songs, and wrote the lyrics,” so it really isn’t clear what the AI did here. Is Microsoft’s AI the Rebecca Black to Carré’s ARK Music Factory? For the sake of argument, let’s just stipulate that the AI played a significant part in the production of these songs.

With that in mind, let’s check what the computer spit out. First up for your consideration is “Daddy’s Car,” which manages to be creepy while also being complete nonsense. It’s an impressive feat:

“Daddy’s Car” is not a good song, but it is largely inoffensive. If you stuck this bit of Beatles simulacra into your father’s playlist, for example, he probably wouldn’t immediately realize something was off. He might not remember the song, but that’s normal. Lots of music is forgettable. This music is forgettable.

Now, for those who are not septuagenarians—at least when it comes to music choices—there is another AI-powered song, and it’s called “Mister Shadow”:

This, too, is not a memorable song, but it is at least mildly amusing as it plays. You may find yourself moving slightly—perhaps tapping a finger or nodding your head—at some point. In the grand scheme of things, that is an accomplishment.

But what is an accomplishment, really, for artificial intelligence? Microsoft’s AI music comes on the heels of a number of projects that used AI to produce dubious artistic products. Consider, for instance, the AI-generated short films circulating around the Internet. These are not good films in any traditional sense, but they are mildly amusing when you consider how they were made—especially if you consider how they were made. Previously, Microsoft’s Tay tweetbot quickly descended into hate speech. All of these uses of AI are united by the fact that they don’t stick to what AI does well. They are disasters in part because of this, but that is also why they’re interesting. As AI gets smarter, the question will increasingly become whether it should be made to focus on tasks it has already mastered or directed to learn new fields. Microsoft’s music suggests that either outcome can be survived with only a minimum of earplugs.

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