This 78-Fingered Robot Guitarist Is An Emotional Music Machine

I think the first thing I should probably say here is that there is a band in Japan which legitimately consists exclusively of robots. The group's - which admittedly looks a little bit nightmarish - consists of a 78-fingered robotic guitarist equipped with 12 picks, a dreadlock-sporting mechanical drummer, and a keyboardist that sort of looks like something out of a Dalek's nightmares. Together, they're capable of playing music that no living human being could possibly manage on their own. Perhaps because of this, they've taken the world of music somewhat by storm, making appearances all across Japan since early last Summer.

Their most recent appearance involves a collaboration with UK-based electronic musician Squarepusher. The end result is a music video, and a song which is equal parts upbeat and haunting: "Sad Robot Goes Funny."  He's referred to it as "an attempt to break new ground for emotional machine music." 

According to Squarepusher, the song's written from the perspective of the robots (assuming they're intelligent enough to possess self-awareness, of course). The first half mirrors the robots' grief that, to their fans, they're nothing more than "entertainment machines." Moving into the second half of the song, the robots are left alone at the end of the day and think back to their past. They remember when they were younger and more energetic, recalling all the strange antics they used to get up to. Finally, in the third movement they return to the public eye, moving from their upbeat fun back to a more emotional and subdued melody.

With Sad Robot Goes Funny, Squarepusher is looking to challenge the presumption that only a human being can create emotionally-charged music.

"The idea of making music with machines fascinates me, as people have often assumed that for music to be emotionally powerful it has to come directly from a human hand," explained Squarepusher in a press release. "I disagree with that, and enjoy proving those people wrong. This project is an excellent way of exploring that area more."

"I think that it explores some of the many fascinating possibilities of music-playing robots," he continued. "I kept the guitar sound clean (i.e., no distortion) so I could freely explore the possibilities of polyphony. The majority of the guitar element of the piece is written to sound like four guitarists playing even though there are only two guitars in the actual performance. There are so many other aspects of the capabilities of the robots that I would like to explore."

And explore he has. Sad Robot Goes Funny is certainly easy on the ears, even if it's still clear that it's not being played by human hands. Z-Machines' Guitarist plays just a little too precisely, its picks are just a little too clean. Of course, it doesn't help that it's pulling of tricks that would be anatomically impossible for a human being, either; these two facts together mean that, however emotional Sad Robot Goes Funny gets, there's still a somewhat mechanical, electronic feel to it.  There's emotion there, sure...but it's not quite the same as hearing a human performance. 

That isn't to say robots won't eventually get there, of course. Robotics technology's getting more advanced every day, and it's not unreasonable to expect that one day - perhaps even in the near future - we might well be seeing a robotic counterpart to Jimi Hendrix taking the stage, blowing us away with a melody about the gulf between his mechanical mind and his flesh-and-blood creator. 

Until that day comes we'll just have to content ourselves with listening to groups like Z-Machines

Via Singularity Hub