Many holiday songs have lyrics that blend into the background, cloaked in sleigh bells and Christmas jingle, indistinguishable one from another. But if nothing else, every carol sung 'round the fire has been written by a human being — until now.
Researchers from the University of Toronto trained a recurrent neural network, a type of complex artificial intelligence (AI), to write a song inspired by an image of a Christmas tree. Give it a listen above, and see if it doesn't chill you more than a frosty winter's eve.
In a paper under conference review, the authors explain how they taught the AI to compose tunes by feeding it 100 hours of online music. They also gave the program thousands of images with captions so that it could link specific words to visual patterns, then create lyrics and music when provided a picture.
"Instead of buying a karaoke machine with certain tracks on it, you can create your own karaoke at home by throwing in some interesting photos and inviting the machine to generate music for you," Sanja Fidler, one of the paper's authors, told The Guardian. "I think it has endless possibilities."
How's the song? Well, it starts off festive, if a bit bland, but things quickly take a turn for the unsettling. Perhaps channeling a spirit from Dickens, the AI sings, "I've always been there for the rest of our lives," suggesting that the ghost in the machine has transcended the perceptions of time we puny meatbags hold. But we get a peek at true dread when the curtain of cheer lifts briefly, and the song lets slip something ominous looms in the hall.
Worried that songcraft will be yet another job to fall to the wayside of the automated revolution? We humans are pretty adept at writing terrible novelty Christmas music — after all, Elmo & Patsy were actual people and not (as far as we know) torture-demons, despite their foisting "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" upon the public.
So it's safe to say that artificial intelligence has a way to go before it matches us in terms of writing a perfect tune. In fact, here's another attempt by the AI to create a narrative song based on an image:
Still, if this is the worst the robots have in store for us, we'll be OK. At least it's not smooth jazz.