A 17-Year-Old Made A Computer Program That Raps… But Is It Art?

04.11.17

West Virginia teen Robbie Barrat, 17, loves to think about artificial intelligence and the artistic possibilities that can come from it. He’s programmed a rapping robot, inspired by a discussion that sparked in his computer programming club at school. The point of contention: Can a robot do more artistically human things, like art and poetry? It was a joke at first when his peers suggested he create a rapping robot. But Barrat was up for the challenge–with the help from Kanye West.

The final result? Here’s a sample:

Some more choice RapBot Lyrics:

Bust a playa with the kids I never had

All his time, all he had, all he had, all he had

Most you rappers don’t even stop to get the most press kit

Playas is jealous cause we got the whole city lit

But without it I’d be worried if they playing that b——-t

You wanna complain about the nights even wilder

I swear to God I hope you have got to hear

I’ll touch every curve of your favorite author

No more wasting time, you can’t roam without Caesar

Back when Gucci was the best summer ever

Before Cam got the hundred with the peer pressure

She walking around looking like Herve Leger

So next time I’m in between but way more fresher

And they say you never know, never never NEVER

Awww yeee.

Aside from Barrat’s programming chops, RapBot (that’s what we’re calling the project) was made possible by a text-to-speech engine called a neural net, which is to AI what a brain is to a human being. As Barrat explains it, a neural net is like having nodes like synapses and neurons, and it requires an input and an output.

In other words, if you want a machine that spits sick rhymes, you gotta give it some flow to learn from.

For his project, Barrat fed his RapBot’s neural net Kanye West lyrics by translating them into a sort of shorthand that the neural net can digest. The output consisted of original rap lyrics arranged with rhyme and flow. I recently had a chance to chat with Robbie about what it took to create a rapping robot, and the larger ethical questions that emerged through the project.  


Q&A With Robbie Barratt, 17

Can you walk us through the process of creating [RapBot]?

You can’t just feed [RapBot’s] neural network a rap song like it’s pure text, because it wouldn’t know what to do with it. You need to format the data so its friendly for the neural network to learn from. What happens is this algorithm called a Markov chain looks at the Kanye West lyrics and it looks at frequency from word to word, so it’s able to generate a bunch of new lines. It doesn’t generate anything that rhymes, it will just generate new sentences that sound kind of like Kanye West lines.

The new text and the Markov chain, and the neural networks takes all this and its able to pick out the ones that have the right amount of syllables and the ones that rhyme with certain things, and is able to order those into a rap song that actually rhymes and to an extent has flow.

How much did you learn about the structure of rap lyrics? Any interesting patterns?

I didn’t learn anything about the structure of rap lyrics, and that is actually a pretty big problem with machine learning–the fact that if the neural network learns something, you can’t really extract that information, and you can’t get it to tell you what the patterns are. If you have a neural network that learns a pattern in your data, you can’t ask it, “OK, what’s the equation?” The neural networks are really like a black box in terms of trying to learn stuff from them.

When we hear the [RapBot] rap, are we hearing a freestyle piece? or is it a mishmash or groups of lyrics?

It’s kind of like a mishmash of lyrics. The Markov chain will make new lines, but [RapBot is] restricted to using the words that Kanye West has used. If Kanye West has never used a word, then it can’t use that. It also structures the order of words in structures present in Kanye West’s lines. Its learned pretty much everything it knows form observing the Kanye West lyrics.

Reporter’s note: Barrat says he was attracted to AI from the start because of machine ethics, a field of questioning that tackles the tricky, ethical issues that surface from the advancement of AI technologies. 

What kinds of things have you had to think about in terms of machine ethics through this process?

I don’t know if it’s all right for the robot to say racist things. Because the robot is saying the stuff that it’s learned from looking at existing rap. It’s not like [The RapBot] has bad intent. It’s kind of like if a little kid said racist things and didn’t know what they meant. If the neural network generates [offensive lyrics] then you know that’s kind of the representation it’s learned of all of Kanye’s lyrics. I don’t want to alter that in any way because then it’s no longer the machine’s rap, it’s kind of like my look at it and my version of it.

I feel like machine ethics and those sorts of questions are going to be a lot more prevalent in the coming years as AI gets more popular and powerful. I don’t think anyone knows where everything is going, what it’s going to be like in ten years. But there are a bunch of ethical and moral questions that need to be answered.

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Robbie Barrat is currently working on an AI that can create abstract art and album covers. His next project is to create an project that uses AI to generate recipes.  

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