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Jazz-singing robot could shed light on consciousness

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ROBOTS and humans will soon be living in harmony. A singing robot is being taught to improvise jazz duets with a human in a project that researchers hope will shed light on the nature of consciousness.

Antonio Chella at the University of Palermo, Italy, is working with a Telenoid robot, developed by the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory in Japan. To start with, the Telenoid will be trained to mimic the movements and simple sounds made by a human singer, as well as associate parts of music with different emotional states. Chella then plans to see if the robot can use these associations to improvise - choosing movements and vocalisations that complement its human duet partner.

Intelligence is often defined as the ability to find connections between existing entities - understanding that a key goes in a lock, for instance. But Chella suggests that a conscious organism should be able to go a step further and introduce novel connections - between, say, musical phrases - that result in the creation of something new. That, in essence, is the idea behind improvisation.

Jazz musicians interviewed by Chella talked of having a mental library of musical phrases that they were able to combine in new ways when prompted by other musicians. Importantly, however, this combination happens in a state that is “similar in a sense to dreaming", he says. “Not really conscious, but not unconscious." Chella wants to replicate these states in a machine. “Consciousness could be linked to these moments of combination," he says.

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