Artificially intelligent music finds a home at UNSW

12 Aug 2021
Uncanny valley team in futuristic masks

With major grants, innovative industry collaboration and some cutting-edge research, UNSW Sydney academics are making waves in the Artificially Intelligent (AI) music scene.

The music you listen to in 20 years may not just be written by a human. Musical AI tools are already reshaping the landscape of music production, generating endless live music streams and even resurrecting beloved artists of the past.

Professor Toby Walsh is UNSW’s AI guru, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He said, “Many people think computers can't be creative. But that's not the case. The creative industries will be just as impacted by AI as other areas.”

UNSW academics are leveraging the University’s strong history in computer science and conducting hands-on research on the artistic, technological, ethical and industry impact of AI music tools.

Associate Professor Oliver Bown is a music technology academic and practicing creative artist working with creative uses of emerging technologies. He has recently published Beyond the Creative Species, a multidisciplinary exploration of AI creativity that takes into account music theory, sociology and technology.

UNSW Art & Design has a world class reputation for collaboration in the creative application of new technologies and the new Arts, Design & Architecture (ADA) faculty merger now brings together all of the creative fields in UNSW under one roof,” Professor Bown said.

The recent creation of the ADA faculty has lowered the barriers between disciplines, enabling new forms of collaboration between different areas of the University and with industry. It brings together six schools, six research centres, three prestigious ARC Laureates, as well as world-leading facilities like the Interactive Media Lab, Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab, UNSW Galleries and Maker Spaces. At the centre of the new faculty is the cross-disciplinary Innovation Hub, a space where students, staff and our industry partners can come together to solve problems. The combined strengths of these schools and their facilities position the faculty uniquely well to face a changing higher education sector and fast-evolving commercial landscape.

With its strong ties to industry, UNSW ADA is well placed to tackle the big questions at the future of commercial creative practice in a uniquely hands-on way. The University has partnered with Uncanny Valley, a music, sound and technology company founded by music producer/computer scientist Justin Shave and songwriter/entrepreneur Charlton Hill, to share knowledge and become involved in some cutting-edge projects in the AI music space.

“We have created an incredibly fertile environment for innovating with local creative producers,” said Professor Bown. “Our work with Uncanny Valley is all about hybrid research that combines music, algorithms, design and the social dimension of creative production. I see initiatives like the new ADA Innovation Hub as a way to highlight and streamline how these partnerships can work.”

The University and Uncanny Valley have collaborated on several projects, with more in the pipeline. Last year, Professor Bown and Dr Brendan Wright from UNSW were involved in Uncanny Valley’s winning entry to the first international AI Song Contest, Beautiful the World. This year they were on the jury.

“Judging AI-generated art and music is not straightforward,” said Professor Bown. “Should you just focus on the quality of the final output or should you interrogate the process and understand what role the AI played? The AI Song Contest splits these elements apart. It celebrates the everyday use of AI tools in a largely human creative process, whilst also rewarding technological innovation.”

The Uncanny Valley team is also developing MEMU, an AI powered music generation engine which draws from human-created samples to create music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MEMU’s prolific production engine generates musical ideas for use in DJ mixes, song writing, streaming, gaming and more. The engine is currently drawing data from entries to the AI Song Contest 2021, and you can tune in here. Other UNSW and Uncanny Valley collaborative projects include the Google Creative Lab machine learning workshop with Australian musicians Briggs, Milan Ring and Cosmo's Midnight.

MEMU logo

Industry partnerships such as the evolving relationship between UNSW ADA and Uncanny Valley give UNSW students hands-on experience with exciting new frontiers in the commercial world and enable mutually beneficial knowledge sharing.

Caroline Pegram is a Strategy and Innovation Director at Uncanny Valley and UNSW visiting fellow working with Professor Bown in the Interactive Media Lab. She said, “For us, it’s a two-way street of knowledge sharing. Uncanny Valley bring extensive commercial industry insights and design practices and our academic partners like Professor Bown bring high level critical thinking on these topics. Together we can continue to build the integrity and rigidity of processes and ethical approach that will help us build technologies, tools and systems that are on point for both creators and creative industries.”

The development of Australian AI music and music technology research is safe in the hands of UNSW and its industry partners. They believe in building responsible systems that are creative tools rather than wholesale replacements of humans, encouraging creative collaboration and the dissolution of barriers of technological accessibility.

“Everyone should be able to express themselves, collaborate on music and earn revenue streams while doing so,” said Caroline Pegram.

"In the long term, I hope AI becomes Augmented Intelligence not Artificial Intelligence,” said Professor Walsh. “AI is just a tool that can be used to augment rather than replaces humans. We need to race with the machines not against them."

The future of creative music technology research at UNSW is bright. Professor Bown was recently awarded a major ARC Discovery Project grant which is funding the University’s research into dialogic AI, exploring the creative relationship between artists and artificially intelligent tools. This is now supporting the next generation of UNSW’s music technology thinkers, enabling PhD theses on topics such cutting-edge video game music and composition through algorithms which model animal movement and cognition.

For more on AI at UNSW, tune into the online talk How to think about robots featuring Professor Walsh and robot ethicist Kate Darling on Wednesday 18 August 2021.