Music that features a “singing” koala bear took the prize in one of Europe’s highest-profile AI competitions yet.

What’s new: A team of Australian programmers, designers, and musicians won the inaugural AI Song Contest — a stand-in for this year’s cancelled Eurovision Song Contest — with a koala-tinged track called “Beautiful the World.” You can listen to it here.

How it works: Dutch broadcasters organized the AI Song Contest to fill the void after the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest, which drew 182 million viewers last year, was called off due to worries about Covid-19. AI-proficient judges rated each entry on the creativity and extent of the machine learning involved. Eurovision’s parent company oversaw the balloting. More than 16,000 people watched the competition on May 12.

  • The rules required that machine learning be used to generate at least some musical elements, but humans were allowed to arrange them.
  • The winner, Uncanny Valley, created a new musical instrument by training a tool from Google’s Project Magenta on noises made by indigenous Australian wildlife including koala bears, kookaburras, and Tasmanian devils.
  • The instrument played melodies generated by a neural network trained on 200 songs from prior Eurovision contests.
  • The group wrote its lyrics using a GPT-2 implementation trained on words from past Eurovision songs, then trained a neural voice synthesizer to sing them in tune.

Behind the music: Thirteen teams from Europe, the UK, and Australia submitted one song each. Some of our favorites:

  • The Dutch team behind the R&B jam “Abbus” trained their neural nets on thousands of pop and folk songs as well as hundreds of Eurovision songs. They ran the resulting instrumental tracks through another model trained to pick out Eurovision winners.
  • The makers of “I Write a Song” went for novelty. They penalized their model if it generated melodies too similar to past Eurovision hits.
  • A trio of Americans living in Berlin employed seven different neural networks to generate music and lyrics, including a fake news generator that helped with the words for the techno-tinged “I’ll Marry You, Punk Come.”

Why it matters: Although it attracted a small fraction of Eurovision’s usual crowd, the contest shined a bright spotlight on AI’s rising role in the arts.

We’re thinking: What gave the Australian teammates their winning edge? They had the right koalafications.

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