Artificial Intelligence

Australia wins first AI ‘Eurovision Song Contest’ by sampling koalas and kookaburras

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A team of programmers and songwriters from Australia have won the inaugural (and unofficial) AI ‘Eurovision Song Contest’, using a neural network trained on noises made by koalas, kookaburras, and Tasmanian devils to help score their winning entry.

The group, named Uncanny Valley, said their song was a response to the bushfire season that began ravaging Australia in June 2019. Scientists estimated that around a billion animals were killed by the fires (a figure that excludes insects, fish, frogs, and bats, but includes reptiles, birds, and mammals — including those sampled for the song).

The track, titled “Beautiful the World,” falls into the grand tradition of saccharine and zany Eurovision pop that so often shows up alongside raging death metal and techno remixes of European folk ballads. It includes the lyrics “Flying in fear but love keeps on coming (flying, flying) / Dreams still live on the wings of happiness (dreams still)” and recasts the devastating bushfires as “vivid candles of hope.”

The real Eurovision Song Contest has been held every year since 1956, and Australia has participated since 2015 (partly because Australians love it so much). The AI version, though, was cooked up by Dutch broadcaster VPRO after the 2020 edition was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thirteen teams entered songs and were live-streamed earlier this week.

The winners of the AI Eurovision Song Contest, based on a combination of audience votes and judges’ scores.
Image: VPro

Although it was dubbed an “AI song contest,” computers weren’t always calling the shots. As is often the case with AI music, machine learning was used to generate some elements of the songs, but it was usually up to humans to arrange and perform the final tracks.

In the case of “Beautiful the World,” it seems that AI was mainly used to write the melody and lyrics, with the samples from Australian fauna used to craft a synth instrument. The final performance, though, was firmly down to humans. (You can read more about the technical aspects of the song in this blog post by team member Sandra Uitdenbogerd.)

The AI Eurovision audience wasn’t just in the mood for poptimism, though. Second place in the contest went to Germany’s entry, an eerie song titled “I’ll Marry You, Punk Come” by Team Dadabots x Portrait XO.

For their lyrics, the team used AI trained on 1950s acapellas to generate a stream of babble that they then tried to recognize words in. The music was generated using a collection of neural networks trained on everything from pop choruses to baroque harmonies. The resulting track (which you can listen to below) is a melange of different styles, with one team member comparing the curation process to “hunting and gathering.”

If the results of the contest show anything, though, it’s that artificial intelligence is best used as a partner in music-making, not as the lead. The last-place entry was “Painfulwords” by Team New Piano from Switzerland, which let computers take charge.

“Faced with the choice between making an accessible song with quite a few human interventions, or experimenting with as much AI as possible and then delivering a worse-sounding song, we chose the latter,” said the two data scientists responsible for the track. The results speak for themselves.

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