Go with the flow state: What music and AI have in common

Carrie Cai, Ben Zevenbergen and Johnny Soraker all work on developing artificial intelligence (AI) responsibly at Google, in the larger research community and across the technology industry. Carrie is a research scientist focusing on human-AI interaction, Ben is an ethicist and policy advisor and Johnny is an AI Principles ethicist. They all work within a global team of experts from a variety of fields, including the social sciences and humanities, focused on the ethical development of AI. They’re driven to make systems that are fair, inclusive and focused on people.

But they have more than their work in common: They’re all accomplished musicians who’ve studied music, composed and published pieces and even played at the professional level. We wanted to know more about their musical backgrounds, and how this creative interest informs their work building AI systems that take everyone into account.

What instrument — or instruments — do you play?

Ben: Guitar, bass and drums.

Johnny: Mainly drums these days, but I’ve also done ambient and electronica.

Carrie: I play piano and I also compose music.

Where did your interest in playing music come from?

Ben: I grew up in a musical family where instruments were always lying around. My parents’ friends would bring their instruments when they came to visit and our house would turn into a music venue. I enrolled in a music degree in my late teens to become a professional drummer. Then, a year later, I serendipitously became a bassist: I went to law school in the Netherlands, and the university band already had someone who was a better drummer than I was — but they needed a bassist, so I grabbed the opportunity.

Carrie: I started out in the Yamaha music program when I was six, where rather than learning technical piano playing skills you focus on ear training, hearing the music and how to play as an ensemble. I think that foundation led me to be a lot more creative with my music than I would have been otherwise. I spent part of my childhood years composing music, too — here are some of my early compositions from my high school days!

Johnny: I’ve played lots of instruments since I was a child, but never had the tenacity to get very good at any of them. Perhaps as a result of this, I got involved with a highly experimental ambient scene in the early 2000s and started the one-man project Metus Mortuus, using samples and DIY equipment to create often disturbing soundscapes. It was really only when I got hooked on the video game “Rock Band,” where you play “fake” instruments along with the notation on screen, that I put in the hours needed to get some basic limb independence and with that a platform for learning real drums.

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