AI and brain interfaces may be about to change how we make music

Computer control in the form of AI and brain-computer interfaces is being introduced to the art of composing.

When Yamaha demonstrated their AI allowing a dancer to play the piano with movement in a Tokyo concert hall in November 2017, it was the latest example of the ways in which computers are increasingly getting involved in music-making. We’re not talking about the synthesizers and other CPU-based instruments in contemporary music. We’re talking about computers’ potential as composers’ tools, or as composers themselves.


Yamaha’s use of AI is quite different. In the recent performance, world-renowned dancer Kaiji Moriyama was outfitted with electrodes on his back, wrists, and ankles, and set free to express himself as AI algorithms converted his movements into musical phrases for transmission to Yamaha’s Disklavier piano via MIDI messages. (MIDI is a computer language through which musical instruments can be controlled.)

(Yamaha Corporation)

Yamaha’s AI, which they’re still developing, worked with a database of linked musical phrases from which it selected and drew melodies for sending to the instrument based on Moriyama’s motions. 

Moriyama was accompanied onstage by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Scharoun Ensemble.

(Yamaha Corporation)

We’ve written previously about other musical AI, the web-based AI platform called Amper that uses AI to compose passages based on descriptors of style, instrumentation, and mood. Singer/songwriter Taryn Southern was using Amper as her primary collaborator in writing an album. 

Another fascinating avenue being explored is the use of brain-to-computer (BCI) interfaces that allow wearers to think music into existence. It’s a fascinating way for anyone to play music, but it’s especially promising for people whose physical limitations make the creation of music difficult or even impossible otherwise.

Certain electroencephalogram signals correspond to known brain activities such as the P300 ERP (for “event-related potential”) that signifies a person’s reaction to some stimulus. It’s previously been by brain-computer interface (BCI) applications in spelling, operating local environmental controls, operating web browsers, and for painting. In September 2017, researchers led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from TU Graz's Institute of Neural Engineering published research in PLOS/One describing their “Brain Composer” project that leveraged P300 to bring musical ideas directly from composers’ mind to notated sheets of music. They work in collaboration with MoreGrasp and "Feel Your Reach”.

The researchers’ first step was training the BCI application to recognize alphabetical letters before moving on to note length and pitch, as well as notation values such as rests, ties, and such. In this video, the researchers demonstrate the successful outcome of just 90-minutes’ work for a motor-impaired subject.

(i-KNOW Conference)

This is all exciting stuff — and a heaven-send for musical souls with physical limitations — even if the results are a little odd, as in Yamaha’s case. (The BCI example sounds remarkably like the theme from Fringe.)

We’ve been augmenting our natural musical capabilities with technology ever since we picked up our first rock — and certainly by the time we honked steam-punk-looking saxophones. We should have no issue with adding AI and BCIs to our toolbox.

If AI comes up with music we might not, that’s fine. The workings of music remain pretty mysterious, in any event, so here’s an intriguing thought. Though many of us basically prefer music that’s catchy and sonorous, the stuff that really gets us in the gut tends to have something of the unexpected to it, a surprising dissonance or rhythm, and odd “hair” out of place, that makes the moment leap from our speakers or the stage and into our lives as more of an experience than a piece of art, leaving us a little startled and even moved. So if AI can beat a flesh-and-blood chess player by not thinking like a human, imagine what we’re about to hear.

 

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.