Quasi-Robotics Concert, Where AI Perhaps Stood For Almost Involved

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A robot dog performed with a ballerina during a SoundBox evening in a rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. (Photos by Kristen Loken)

SAN FRANCISCO — One of Michael Tilson Thomas’ brighter ideas, when he was music director of the San Francisco Symphony, was a series called SoundBox. Installed in a cavernous, industrially imposing rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall, it offered innovative music in a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere with an ingenious acoustical environment by Meyer Sound. The series proved popular, especially with a youngish audience, for its informal, unreserved seating, snacks, and a full bar.

Thomas’ successor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, enthusiastically continued the series, and its 10th season concluded April 6 with a conceptually fascinating if problematic program called “Press Play,” curated by “Carol Reiley and her robots.” The house was packed.

But the event was shadowed, because SoundBox had already fallen on hard times a few months ago: The symphony’s board, claiming financial constraints, decided to whittle this season’s offering from four programs to two.

More recently came the sad (scandalous?), well-publicized news that Salonen had decided not to renew his five-year contract as of the end of next season, bluntly citing sharp disagreements with the board. He had been lured to San Francisco in the expectation of support for all kinds of exciting innovations. There were semi-staged operas with Peter Sellars, international touring, commissions, and even a plan with Frank Gehry to transform two warehouses on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay into ancillary indoor and outdoor concert halls.

Carol Reiley curated the program, which featured a number of her robot creations.

High on the list of Salonen’s innovations was the engagement of eight “creative partners” who would offer fresh ideas, entice donors (especially from Silicon Valley, long indifferent to classical music), and curate SoundBox programs. All that is now in jeopardy, despite loud protests from the orchestra’s musicians and the local (and national) music community.

Reiley is one of the creative partners. (Others include Nico Muhly, Claire Chase, Esperanza Spalding, Bryce Dessner, and Julia Bullock.) Nicknamed “The Mother of Robots,” Reiley’s extensive tech connections made her a natural enticement to help raise money from that sector.

But beyond that her resume is little short of astonishing. Born in 1982 in Michigan but long based in the Bay Area, she is an American of Taiwanese descent, growing up speaking Mandarin at home. Aside from being the mother of robots, she is the mother of two human children with her husband, British-American computer scientist and technology entrepreneur Andrew Ng.

She earned degrees in computer engineering specializing in robotics from Santa Clara University and a master’s from Johns Hopkins. She was working towards a doctorate at Stanford when she dropped out to pursue her startup ideas.

Reiley seems to be as much an entrepreneur as a sophisticated technical innovator. She built surgical robotic systems at Johns Hopkins, space robotics at Lockheed Martin, driver-less cars at her company drive.ai, and moved on to another of her startups, using robotics to replace amputated limbs. She sits on numerous boards and mentorship programs. She is a champion of diversity in the tech world. As a sideline, especially in graduate school, she dabbled in modeling.

Members of the San Francisco Symphony performed during the program ‘Press Play.’

Although SoundBox and the symphony itself were derailed by the pandemic, Reiley forged ahead. Despite eight years of piano lessons, she claims she is no musician. Yet in 2020, she co-founded deepMusic.ai with her friend, violinist Hilary Hahn, meant “to amplify human creativity through AI.”

Which all led to her SoundBox program this past weekend. It seemed to offer the opportunity for musicians and neophytes to begin to understand how artificial intelligence might now and in the future interact with musical performance and creativity.

Reiley’s “mother of robots” moniker manifested itself right away in two adorable dog-robots that clattered around, shaking hands/paws and sitting up, as controlled by handlers with i-Pad-like devices (one awaits the day when the dogs will develop their own agency, sans handlers). Down by the bar were four robotic programs demonstrated by their creators, students invited by Reiley.

But the program itself fell short of real illumination. In response to a no doubt clueless question by me, Reiley explained the connections between AI and robotics: “Robotics is the mechanical spinoff of AI,” she answered. “AI is the brain; robots are the body, the physical extension of AI.”

OK, but the SoundBox program contained precious little actual AI, let alone robotics. One of the robot dogs did reappear in a sweet duet with a ballerina. Otherwise, Muhly had composed a piece with AI, and there was a rather nutsy elaboration via AI of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” ChatGPT  — notorious a couple of years ago for trying to intrude on a questioner’s love life — contributed some rather sappy lyrics to Debussy. Richard Reed Parry had a piece “conducted” by a (rock-steady) human heartbeat, and Jóhann Jóhannsson offered another somehow controlled by breathing. A movement from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was billed as “recomposed by Max Richter.” But since this was in a section supposedly showcasing AI, it was unclear how or whether Richter had made use of artificial intelligence.

Among the many performers, which included robots, was a human violinist.

The evening mostly consisted of live performances by (excellent) symphony musicians of various pieces from the standard repertoire, chosen from responses to a questionnaire sent to ticket purchasers. But the connection to AI remained largely elusive. The music was backed by generic AI images (cartoon Impressionism for Debussy; dots for Glass). Technically, the projections on screens all around the space and the ceiling were superb.

Lots of artists, writers, and composers are nervous about the intrusion of AI into their creativity — as the recent Hollywood strikes revealed. Reiley tried to address those concerns, but she did so inconclusively. She wanted us to realize that the interface of AI and human artistry was just at the beginning.

She insists she wants to keep human creativity front and center. But for all her accomplishments and charm, she was a poor explainer of what she was trying to do, reading stiffly from a cursory prepared script. We needed more examples of AI compositions, however primitive they might seem at this early stage of development. And fewer live performances, however accomplished. Reiley didn’t seem to know her audience or what she wanted to tell us. A pity.