In Brief

The Pentagon's biggest challenge: teaching computers jazz

US defence researchers are playing jazz to an AI project in the hope that it will learn how to improvise

Forget the Men Who Stare At Goats - the latest project undertaken by US defence research is even stranger: teaching computers to play jazz.

If the plan works, it could lead one day to a robotic jazz band, though there are other, more practical, applications.

Tech Insider website says the project is funded by Darpa, the American government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It has a pedigree with funding projects with wider applications, and created the original internet in the 1960s.

Jazz musician and computer scientist Kelland Thomas is leading the team hoping to teach an AI (Artificial Intelligence) programme to improvise jazz. He is starting by inputting transcriptions of jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

The programme will eventually learn to identify and analyse musical patterns - and it is hoped it will then use that knowledge to play its own improvised music. Thomas told Tech Insider: "A human musician also builds a knowledge base by practicing and by listening and by learning and studying.

"So the thing we're proposing to do is analogous to the way a human learns, but eventually it will be able to do this on a much larger scale. It can scour thousands of transcriptions instead of dozens or hundreds."

Of course, music isn't the ultimate point, the researchers hope to teach computers to think creatively. That ability would help them to communicate with humans better - and solve problems as they arise.

Thomas said: "The ability to, on the fly and in the moment, create melodies that are goal-directed, that are going somewhere, doing something and evincing emotion in the listener, is really, really amazing.

"In my mind, jazz and improvisation in music represent a pinnacle of human intellectual and mental achievement."

Thomas believes he will have his virtual musician improvising within five years, and he intends to create a robot that can join human musicians onstage to jam following that.

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