International Jazz Day: A look into Robots, and the future of Jazz

Every April 30th, the world comes together to celebrate Jazz Music as part of International Jazz day. Originally declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011, the goal of the day is "to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe."

Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology director Gil Weinberg appeared at the United Nations to make a presentation about his research in Robotic Musicianship, how it related to International Jazz Day, and to give the UN a glimpse into the possible future of Jazz music. Titled “Robotic Musicians and Democracy”, he provided from his own personal experiences to outline the value that robotic musicians can bring on a personal level to musicians, and how that can make a difference on an international stage.

He pointed to an event earlier in his career creating robots as a clear example of the value that robots can bring to music and international relations. In a room with both Arab and Israeli musicians, Weinberg’s first creation, named Haile, served as a facilitator between the musicians, creating original beats between the two human musicians as they played.

Weinberg went on to show demonstrations from perhaps his most famous creation, the marimba playing robot Shimon.

“It can play pitch, it can understand harmony, and melody. And it also has a head, so it can move with you, groove with you, and understand the beat. It can also look at you to facilitate turn taking,” Weinberg noted, pointing out all of these features in Shimon as aspects that musicians appreciate about Jazz. The goal of his research, Weinberg said, is to create robots that listen like humans, but play like machines.

Weinberg then shared another of his tremendously successful research projects: a prosthetic drumming arm created for Jason Barnes, a musician who lost his right hand in an accident. Barnes tasked Weinberg and his research group to create a hand that would allow him to play the drums again.

The robotic musicianship research group responded by not only creating a hand that allowed him to do this, but to also play at a speed that is impossible for a normal musician. Weinberg exhibited this by showing sample video of Barnes playing improvised Jazz with a guitar player and standing bass player. Barnes has also made the news for exhibiting another of Weinberg's creations, the Skywalker hand.

The overarching theme of the presentation was evident: the goal of robotic musicianship is not for robots to replace human musicians, but to play music alongside them. “It’s a lot about communication, it’s a lot about listening… they will inspire us, they will enhance us,” said Weinberg.