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Government Funds Gimmickry

Monday October 29th, 2012   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 9:56am PDT   •  

Shimon is a robot with four arms who plays marimba, bobs his head, and can reportedly improvise like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Shimon’s inventors at the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology claim that he morphs the styles of the jazz masters and produces novel, surprising arrangements.

Shimon’s brief recital at this site confirms that, to say the least, he cannot improvise like Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane. On the other hand, Shimon is capable of producing incoherent noodling in response to human input. He is essentially a piece of gimmickry, roughly equivalent to HAL the computer in the film 2001 that had been programmed to sing “Daisy.” The robot also recalls those “Chatty Cathy” dolls that spoke when you pulled a string. Who would pay for such a thing? Actually, American taxpayers did. 

Shimon was developed with money from the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that “helped fund the project.” The amount of federal funding was not revealed but it’s the principle that’s in question here. Shimon confirms that government funding is no substitute for talent and training. And comparing a robot with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, giants in American musical history, is particularly loathsome, and not just because neither played marimba.

Neither artist owed his motivation or success to government money. Both musicians studied and practiced diligently, which is why they could create musical art that stands the test of time. Listen to The Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, maybe Trinkle Tinkle, and Coltrane’s master work, A Love Supreme. Those and many other works flow from the artistic genius that no federal grant or complex algorithm can create.

A case can be made that government can fund scientific projects that show merit and utility. Likewise, a case can be made that government can commission works of art on an ad-hoc basis. Shimon the robot makes the case that government should not be spending taxpayer dollars on gimmickry masquerading as music.

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October 2012