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Building an Instrument Designed by AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is now affordable enough and common enough that people can use it for a cheap laugh. As a professional writer, I am amused by the clumsy output of AI writing services. In the same vein, AI-generated art has appeal — not as a true representation of the human condition, but as entertainment accompanying the bizarre output. These images are attempts by an AI to combine visual representations of the entered keywords into a coherent whole. To test the limits of his technical skills, James Bruton built a real instrument based on a design created by an AI.

Some AIs are actually pretty good at creating surreal art or even very specific types of realistic art, such as portraits. Surreal art works because it doesn’t have to make sense. Portraits work because human faces all look pretty similar. But AIs struggle to create original designs for physical objects that make geometric sense. You can try this yourself by asking an AI to make every old appliance in your house. At first glance, it looks a bit like a real thing. But the longer you look, the more you see Escher-esque details that could not exist in reality. That is why Bruton faced a major challenge when he decided to take on this project.

The design chosen by Bruton was generated (after several attempts) with the phrase “experimental robotic equipment for playing music”. As expected, the AI generated image is geometrically impossible. But it had several features and an overall design aesthetic that Bruton could replicate in the physical world. He designed this experimental instrument in CAD and beyond 3D printed the parts. It looks like a blue bucket with several curved tube arms ending in spheres. Bruton decided that the arms should rotate and the balls should be squeezable, with both actions controlling the music in some way.

An Arduino Mega 2560 development board monitors those controls, which work with the Hall effect sensors. Rotating an arm moves a Hall effect sensor relative to a magnet, and squeezing a ball pushes a magnet closer to a Hall effect sensor. That gave it analog inputs to translate and output as MIDI signals. Those MIDI signals can then be fed into a synthesizer or sampler, so manipulating the weird AI instrument produces music.

To test the instrument, Bruton met up with Sam Battle (from the LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER YouTube channel) at Battle’s THIS MUSEUM IS (NOT) OBSOLETE, which features several of Battle’s own musical creations. They connected the output of the AI instrument to the input of Battle’s DIY pipe organ. And it worked! Obviously there are much better ways to play music, but experimental musicians should appreciate the nature of this project.

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