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’ve been amused by the clumsy output of AI writing services. In a similar vein, AI-generated art has appeal — not as a genuine portrayal of the human condition, but as entertainment at the bizarre output. These images are attempts by an AI to combine visual representations of the input keywords into a cohesive whole. To test the limits of his engineering skills, James Bruton built a real instrument based on a design created by an AI.

Some AIs are actually pretty good at creating surreal kind or even very specific kinds of realistic art, like portraits. Surreal art works because it doesn’t need to make sense. Portraits work because human faces are all quite similar. But AIs struggle to produce original designs for physical objects that make sense geometrically. You can try this yourself by asking an AI to create any old appliance around your home. At first glance, it will look a bit like a real thing. But the longer you look, the more you notice Escher-esque details that couldn’t exist in reality. That’s why Bruton had a big challenge ahead of him when he decided to take on this project.

The design Bruton settled on was generated (after several attempts) with the phrase “experimental robotics equipment for playing music.” As expected, the AI-generated image is geometrically impossible. But it had distinct features and an overall design aesthetic that Bruton could replicate in the physical world. He designed this experimental instrument in CAD and then 3D printed the parts. It looks like a blue bucket with several curved tube arms that terminate 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 using 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 him analog inputs to translate and output as MIDI signals. Those MIDI signals could then feed into a synthesizer or sampler, so manipulating the weird AI instrument produces music.

To test the instrument, Bruton met Sam Battle (of the LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER YouTube channel) at Battle’s THIS MUSEUM IS (NOT) OBSOLETE, which contains 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! Clearly there are far better ways to play music, but experimental musicians should appreciate the nature of this project.

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