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Virtual Agents in Live Coding

A Review of past, present and future directions

Machine learning is currently (2021–22) a trending topic in science, engineering and the arts (Alpadyn 2016). Bringing machine learning into the real-time domain is a well-known challenge due to the significant amount of time needed to process the many complex computations it requires (Collins 2008; Xambó, Lerch and Freeman 2018). Artificial Intelligence (AI) and improvisation have been investigated extensively in various artistic domains, including music. However, with a few notable exceptions discussed here, AI in the context of improvisational practices inherent to live coding has been little explored. Live coding provides an exemplary scenario through which to investigate the potential of machine learning in performance, as it brings a live account of programming applied to music-making, described with the property of liveness (Tanimoto 2013).

Here we explore some of the present and future directions that research into and practices using virtual agents (VAs) in live coding might take. In discussions and writings in the early years of live coding practices, in addition to the promises and potential of a “new form of expression in computer music” (Collins et al. 2003, 321), the drawbacks and challenges of live coding were also highlighted, including the amount of time required to generate audible code, the dependency on inspiration (which is not always present when improvising) and the risk of dealing with code errors due to its liveness. Collaborative music live coding typically involves a group of at least two networked live coders, who can perform together while co-located in the same space, distributed in different spaces or in a configuration that is a combination of both (Barbosa 2003, 57–58). Collaborative music live coding is a promising approach to music performance and computer science education because it can promote peer learning in the latter and an egalitarian approach to collaborative improvisation in the former (Xambó et al. 2017). Given that it might sometimes be impractical for one artist to collaborate with another human — for reasons of travel limitations or scheduling issues, for example — an alternative virtual peer can be an option. Looking at the challenges and opportunities of collaborating with VAs is of interest in the present article.

Figure 1. Word cloud showing the 100 most frequent specialized words used in the 30 analyzed references related to virtual agents in live coding. Generated with NVivo. [Click image to enlarge]

A review of different perspectives of using VAs in the practice of live coding from past and present focusses on the period 2010–2020 and points to future directions. To identify relevant articles, different database sources have been used (DBLP, Google Scholar, ICLC Proceedings, JSTOR Search, Scopus, Zenodo) to search for different keyword strings (“live coding + machine learning”, “live coding + agent”, “live coding + virtual agent”) found in publications from that period. 1[1. The main analysis was done in the summer of 2020, with bibliographic updates in the winter of 2021.] We have excluded references that explore immersive experiences (e.g., virtual worlds, audiovisual experiences) as they would be out of the scope of this research. To begin with, we carried out an initial text analysis of the documents. Our analytical approach is based on thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2006) using the NVivo software to identify the main topics discussed here. Thirty items from 2003–2020 have been analyzed; further references that were more broadly generic were excluded from the study. The references have been grouped into two main categories: conceptual foundations and practical examples. Figure 1 illustrates the most frequent specialized words encountered in the analyses — these orbit around vocabulary from computer music, computing and machine learning, among others.

The discussion and propositions here follow up on the author’s previous research exploring the potential role of a virtual agent to counterbalance the limitations of human live coding (Xambó et al. 2017). In turn, it provides a critical context to position our project “MIRLCAuto: A Virtual Agent for Music Information Retrieval in Live Coding,” funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Human Data Interaction (HDI) Network Plus. Contributing to the music performance domain can more broadly inform the emerging fields of machine learning and computational creativity applied to real-time contexts (e.g., creative computing, music education, music production, performing arts) and help to move the field forward.

Conceptual Foundations

Broader Context

Figure 2. Word cloud showing related disciplines and perspectives that inform virtual agents in live coding. Generated with Wordle. [Click image to enlarge]

Several areas inform the field of virtual agents (VAs) in live coding. Figure 2 shows the main keywords of disciplines and theoretical frameworks that are present in the selected readings. These include interdisciplinary fields (affective computing, genetic programming [GP], human-computer interaction [HCI], music technology), fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and creativity (computational creativity), fields of AI and computer music (algorithmic composition, computer-aided composition, laptop orchestra, machine musicianship), approaches to collaboration and AI (co-creation, multi-agent systems, participatory sense-making), and approaches to interactive music systems (musical interface design), among others. This variety illustrates the interdisciplinary character of the field.

Virtuality, Agency and Virtual Agency

The adjective and noun “virtual” come from the Latin adjective virtualis of or relating to “power or potency”, and the noun virtūt-, virtus referring to “manliness, valour, worth, merit, ability, particular excellence of character or ability, moral excellence, goodness, this quality personified as a goddess, any attractive or valuable quality, potency, efficacy, special property” (OED — Oxford English Dictionary). In computing (of hardware, a resource and so on) the adjective refers to “not being physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so from the point of view of a programme or user” (OED).

Virtuality is the property of a computer system with the potential for enabling a virtual system (operating inside the computer) to become a real system by encouraging the real world to behave according to the template dictated by the virtual system. In philosophical terms, the property of virtuality is a system’s potential evolution from being descriptive to being prescriptive. (Turoff 1997, 38)

From this perspective, virtuality refers to how computers represent reality. The term “virtual” was used long before the appearance of computers and has multiple connotations, including the related term “virtue” as a personal quality, and the “liminal” property in virtual spaces that refers to temporary zones (Shields 2003, 1–17).

The noun and adjective “agent” come from the Latin agent-, agēns, agere meaning acting or active. The noun refers to “a person who or thing that acts upon someone or something, one who or that which exerts power or the doer of an action,” whereas the adjective refers to “acting or exerting power” (OED). A commonly accepted definition of an agent is “one who acts, or who can act” (Franklin and Graesser 1996, 25); the term refers to humans and most animals, but also to computer-based entities. More precisely, an agent is defined as “anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through actuators” (Russell and Norvig 2016, 35). A more specific working definition brings the notion of being capable of acting independently:

An autonomous agent is a system situated within and a part of an environment that senses that environment and acts on it, over time, in pursuit of its own agenda and so as to effect what it senses in the future. (Franklin and Graesser 1996, 25)

According to Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig, a rational agent is described as follows:

[F]or each possible percept sequence 2[2. I.e. the complete history of everything the agent has ever perceived.], a rational agent should select an action that is expected to maximize its performance measure, given the evidence provided by the percept sequence and whatever built-in knowledge the agent has. (Russell and Norvig 2016, 37)

Hence, “a rational agent should be autonomous” (Russell and Norvig 2016, 39).

A commonality of these definitions of an agent is to cover from the most complex systems on the one end, e.g., humans with sophisticated senses and a range of possible actions to choose from, to the simplest systems on the other end, e.g., thermostats, which are just reactive because they simply respond to the fluctuating temperature of the environment. They term the simplest type of agent a simple reflex agent, which only considers what it senses at present. Such agents “have the admirable property of being simple, but they turn out to be of limited intelligence” (Ibid., 49). Accordingly, it is worth noting that a programme is not necessarily a computer agent if it does not continuously sense the environment and it does not affect what it senses in a later period. As Russell and Norvig describe:

Computer agents are expected to do more [than just act]: operate autonomously, perceive their environment, persist over a prolonged time period, adapt to change, and create and pursue goals. (Russell and Norvig 2016, 4)

A software rational agent is often referred to as a virtual agent, which is the term that we use here. We are cautious about using the term “intelligent agent” as it can raise unrealistic expectations (Nwana 1996, 240), although the state-of-the-art is progressing rapidly. From the above, we assume that VAs are autonomous and that they can span from simple to complex types.

Three primary non-mutually exclusive attributes have been identified by Hyacinth Nwana as preferred criteria in software agents (Ibid., 209 ff.):

Three aspects related to what can constitute a rational agent have been distinguished by Russell and Norvig (2016, 38–39):

Accordingly, one of the advantages of a learning agent is that “it allows the agent to operate in initially unknown environments and to become more competent than its initial knowledge alone might allow” (Russell and Norvig 2016, 55). This is possible via the additional learning element, which oversees the improvement of the agent’s performance through constantly modifying its behaviour according to feedback and learning goals. The learning component builds on the performance element, which oversees decision-making and is present in the agents discussed here.

Machine Musicianship, Musical Metacreation and Musical Cyborgs

Other relevant terms related to VAs in computer music include machine musicianship, musical metacreation and musical cyborg.

Machine musicianship applies AI concepts and techniques to computer music systems, where the systems can learn and evolve (Rowe 2001). Some notable examples exist:

Much of the literature on the subject this far has focussed on studying the use of virtual agents based on the call-and-response strategy using, for example, a similar vs. contrasting response (Subramanian, Freeman and McCoid 2012) or an affective response (Wilson, Fazekas and Wiggins 2020). In contrast, our research takes the perspective of a VA that goes beyond the approach of following live coder actions. To embody the humanoid metaphor, we envision that the virtual agent should be able to act both as a live coder and a chatting peer (Xambó et al. 2017).

A specialized exploration of agents in computer music, in terms of computational simulations of musical creativity, can be found at Musical Metacreation (MuMe), which has since 2020 partnered with another research platform, the Computer Simulation of Music Creativity (CSMC), on the annual joint Conference on AI Music Creativity (AIMC). Connected with the creative practice field of artificial life art or metacreation (Whitelaw 2004), the field of musical metacreation investigates generative tools and theories applied to music creation and includes in its research collaboration between humans and creative VAs (Pasquier et al. 2016). Collaborative music live coding can be understood as a conversation between at least two people; regardless of the size of the group, VAs can be integrated in addition to human agents (HAs). Further, beyond VA-HA collaboration, we envision the possibility of VA-VA collaboration (Xambó et al. 2017). Accordingly, several research questions emerge: Can multiple agents collaborate among themselves? How feasible is it? What would the computational cost be? To what extent should there be supervision and how often? Collaboration between live-coding VAs can be seen as a particular case of multi-agent systems for music composition and performance, which has been widely researched (Miranda 2011).

Donna Haraway has accurately described the term cyb-ernetic org-anism or cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 1991, 149). This creature of social and fictional realities has profoundly influenced science, engineering and the arts; such organisms have been encountered notably in music and live coding practices. The musical cyborg has been defined as “a figure which combines human creativity and digital algorithms to create sounds and moments that would not otherwise be possible through human production alone” (Witz 2020, 33). On the close relationship between the live coder and the algorithm Jacob Witz further explains that “the live coded cyborg actively shapes the algorithms they use to optimize their output on an individual level” (Ibid., 35). Accordingly, here we use the term musical cyborg as a metaphor that refers to the cooperation between a human live coder and a virtual agent, particularly when it is a one-to-one relationship.

Theoretical Frameworks

The revision of a number of existing theoretical frameworks can help in the design and evaluation of systems of VAs for live coding.

Margaret Boden has proposed a general definition of creativity as “the ability to generate novel, and valuable, ideas” (Boden 2009, 24). However, she acknowledges that assessing whether a computer is creative is in itself a philosophical enquiry. In computational creativity, we find some theoretical frameworks designed for understanding computational creative systems: e.g., the Standardised Procedure for Evaluating Creative Systems (SPECs) (Jordanous 2012) and the Creative Systems Framework (CSF) (Wiggins 2006), among others. In particular, CSF has been discussed in the context of live coding (McLean and Wiggins 2010; Wiggins and Forth 2018). Transformational creativity is highlighted as an important element for an agent to be considered creative, “in which an agent modifies its own behaviour by reflective reasoning” (Wiggins and Forth 2018, 274).

Steven Tanimoto (2013) proposes six levels of liveness in the process of programming. This theoretical framework looks into the relationship between the programmer’s actions and the computer’s responses. Beyond the four levels Tanimoto had earlier outlined — informative; informative and significant; informative, significant and responsive; informative, significant, responsive and live — two new levels are proposed. Level 5 is called tactically predictive and is slightly ahead of the programmer by predicting the programmer’s next action (e.g., lexical, musical, semantic) utilizing machine learning techniques. Level 6 is foreseen as strategically predictive, which indicates more intelligent predictions about the programmer’s intentions. Intelligent predictions are linked to agency and liveness, where not only the code but also the tool entail liveness:

The incorporation of the intelligence required to make such predictions into the system is an incorporation of one kind of agency — the ability to act autonomously. Agency is commonly associated with life and liveness. (One might argue that here, liveness has spread from the coding process to the tool itself.) [Tanimoto 2013, 34]

Other approaches to understanding VAs for live coding borrow concepts from studies on collaboration between humans from cognitive science and HCI, among others. A suitable model that takes into account human collaboration and improvisation is the enactive paradigm (Davis et al. 2015). This paradigm incorporates an enactive model of collaborative creativity and co-creation to describe improvised collaborative interactions with feedback from the environment. As part of this paradigm, participatory sense-making is situated as a key component, described as “negotiating emergent actions and meaning in concert with the environment and other agents” (Ibid., 114). In the context of a co-creative drawing partner, a set of design recommendations for co-creative agents is presented in alignment with participatory sense-making and open-ended collaborations (Davis et al. 2016). Accordingly, co-regulation of interaction between agents should form part of the process of participatory sense-making. As proposed in the TOPLAP Manifesto, “Obscurantism is dangerous” and to help practitioners avoid this, screens should typically be shown during a performance. Thus, the live coder’s actions and algorithmic thoughts can be shared not only with co-creative agents but also with the audience, who can also become part of this process of participatory sense-making.

Examples in Practice

Several scholars have proposed agent typologies — of note are those by Hyacinth Nwana (1996) and by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig (2016). Our assumptions here are that the VAs are autonomous (ranging from simple to complex agents). In this section, we analyze examples of VAs in live coding based on two dimensions:

Figure 3. Matrix of learnability and social interactivity with examples of virtual agents in live coding. [Click image to enlarge]

Shared collective control in computer music has been described by Sergi Jordà (2005) as having two categories:

We consider Jordà’s two categories when describing social interactivity to reflect more precisely on the possibilities of collaboration in musical practice. Figure 3 summarizes the examples analyzed below according to our two-dimensional representation. The examples are presented in chronological order by year of the publication in which it was first presented.


Betablocker is a multi-threaded virtual machine designed for low-level live coding that can be used for algorithmic composition, as well as for sonification and visualization (Video 1). It was originally developed by Dave Griffiths (2007) using the Fluxus gaming engine and operated with a game pad instead of a keyboard and mouse. Later it was ported to the Gameboy DS system and a follow-up version was implemented in SuperCollider (Bovermann and Griffiths 2014). The engine only stops if it is externally halted, but if it is left running with no user intervention, it might evolve to stable repetitive behaviours. The language is highly constrained with no distinction between programme and data.

Video 1. Dave Griffiths live coding using the Betablocker DS. Vimeo video “Betablocker DS realtime synth” (3:20) posted by “dave griffiths” on 29 May 2011.

With the Fluxus and Gameboy DS versions, it is possible to create several interactive software agents that modify themselves and each other. For example, while one programme plays sound in a loop, another can be made to overwrite parts of the former while the former is playing, according to an XOR operation. 3[3. The Boolean logic operation “exclusive or” returns “true” if the two inputs are different.] Betablocker also uses genetic algorithms with a customized fitness function for selecting the next generation of programmes. The SuperCollider version results in a more deterministic approach, although this is counterbalanced with randomization functions.

Betablocker is an example of a virtual multi-agent environment that hosts simple autonomous agents that can interact with other agents (multiplicative actions) and also has the ability to learn using evolutionary algorithms. In the words of the system’s authors, “Betablocker can be viewed as a companion for live coding that one has the opportunity to get to know, collaborate with, and — sometimes — work against” (Ibid., 52).

ixi lang

In 2009, Thor Magnusson designed “ixi lang: A SuperCollider parasite for live coding,” a language intended for beginners in live coding. The syntax is simple and allows the user to manipulate musical patterns in a constrained environment (Magnusson 2011). The interaction metaphor consists of creating agents that have assigned instruments, such as melodic, percussive, sample-based or custom, which can play scores defined by the musical patterns.

Video 2. ixi lang running during a sound check for Thor Magnusson’s Instrument Design Seminar on 30 April 2012. YouTube video “ixi lang autocode livecoding for no one at University of London’s Institute of Musical Research” (0:52) posted by “ixiaudio” on 1 May 2012.

Autocode (Video 2) is an autonomous and deterministic virtual multi-agent environment within ixi lang. When invoking the VA, it is possible to define the number of agents or “musicians” to be created. Then the musicians start to be generated in real time with assigned musical patterns according to a deterministic random behaviour that chooses the type of instrument and the score to be played, among others. Although multiple agents can be created that can play in sync, their processes seem to be independent of each other.

Autocode exemplifies a virtual multi-agent environment that behaves autonomously by creating musical agents with the ability to cooperate by performing live coding as summative actions. However, there is no apparent ability to learn.


Sidharth Subramanian, Jason Freeman and Scott McCoid created a VA called LOLbot. It was implemented in Java and resides in LOLC (Laptop Orchestra Live Coding), a text-based environment they presented in 2011 for collaborative live coding improvisation (Freeman and Van Troyer 2011). In a performance setting, LOLbot is run on a separate computer and appears as another ensemble member in the interface. The motivation for the development of this agent was threefold: to understand the nature of human performance, to bring a new character to the ensemble and to provide a tool for practising (Subramanian, Freeman and McCoid 2012). Time synchronization between performers is managed via a shared clock in the LOLC server. The live coders can create rhythmic patterns based on available sound samples. LOLC has an interface with an instant-messaging feature and a visualization of the created patterns, which can be shared and borrowed (multiplicative actions). LOLbot observes and analyzes what the human performers are doing, encapsulating its observations as patterns. Then the VA selects suitable patterns to play in the ensemble using the LOLC syntax. LOLbot uses pattern-matching algorithms to identify the preferred choice to play, which is determined by the metric coherence / contrast. This metric is defined in real time by the human performers using a slider. The value of the coherence / contrast slider defines the character of the agent between a rhythmic behaviour and a contrasting behaviour.

LOLbot is an example of an autonomous agent that can interact with other agents (in this case humans), but with no apparent internal feedback, a mechanism to make improvements.


Video 3. Shelly Knotts, Holger Ballweg and Jonas Hummel performing Knotts’ Flock at ICLC 2015 at Left Bank Leeds (UK) in July 2015. Vimeo video “Flock (2015)” (10:55) posted by Shelly Knotts on 9 November 2015.

Shelly Knotts’ Flock is a system implemented in JITlib, a SuperCollider library that provides live coding functionality (Knotts 2016). The system has voting agents that “listen” to the music made by human live coders and vote on their preferred audio stream according to their pre-defined musical taste (Video 3). The audio analysis uses machine listening techniques employing the SCMIR library in SuperCollider. The votes affect the audio level presence of the audio streams in the audio mix. The agents’ preferences can change over time depending on the other agents’ votes inspired by a bipartisan political model and flock theory in decentralized networks.

Flock exemplifies a virtual multi-agent system with autonomous agents that can interact with other agents and have the ability to constantly modify their own behaviour according to changes in the environment, including other agents’ behaviours (multiplicative actions).


Video 4. Luis Navarro co-performing with Cacharpo. Vimeo video “Cacharpo: co-performing cumbia sonidera with deep abstractions” (5:49) posted by “luis navarro del angel” on 27 July 2017.

Developed by Luis Navarro and David Ogborn, Cacharpo is a VA capable of live coding that works as a co-performer of a human live coder (Navarro and Ogborn 2017). The music it generates is inspired by the cumbia sonidera genre from Mexico and has roots in the Colombian cumbia (Video 4). The motivation is to provide a companion that can bring new dynamics into solo or group performances. The agent “listens” to the audio produced by the live coder using machine listening and music information retrieval techniques implemented in SuperCollider. Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) developed in Haskell are used in real time to identify the characteristics of the music (e.g., cumbia sonidera roles, instruments and relevant audio features). The training of the ANNs is performed offline prior to use with a data set of sound recordings from SuperCollider performances. An algorithm in SuperCollider is in charge of generating the code.

Cacharpo is an example of an autonomous agent that can interact with other agents (in this case humans) with summative actions and can learn during offline training.

Cibo and Cibo v2

Video 5. Performance demonstrating the Cibo Agent. Vimeo video “Cibo Safeguard” (9:42) posted by “Blind Elephants”.

Jeremy Stewart and Shawn Lawson built Cibo in 2019 with interconnected neural networks that generate TidalCycles code in a solo performance style using samples from a training corpus (Video 5). An encoder-decoder sequence-to-sequence architecture, typically used for language translation, is implemented using the PyTorch library in Python. The training was based on recordings of TidalCycles performances by the authors Jeremy Stewart and Shawn Lawson. Some open questions emerged from the results, notably:

When live-coding’s [sic] intent is to show the work, what does it mean if Cibo shows its work and yet no-one, not even the creators, understand entirely how it [is] working? (Stewart and Lawson 2019, 7)

The authors have suggested that Cibo fulfils Tanimoto’s 5th level of liveness, “tactically predictive”.

Video 6. Cibo V2, a machine learning agent performing solo, by Shawn Lawson and Jeremy Stewart. YouTube video “Evening Concert / ICLC 2020 / Thursday Feb 6th” (2:00:38, performance duration 10:45) posted by “International Conference on Live Coding” on 6 February 2020.

Cibo v2 (Stewart et al. 2020) is a VA implemented in TidalCycles that builds on the first implementation. The second version (Video 6) adds more neural network modules to improve the performance (e.g., progression, variation). The agent has been trained with recordings of performances by several live coders using TidalCycles and operates based on characteristics learned from the training material: “The resulting performance agent produces TidalCycles code that is highly reminiscent of the provided training material, while offering a unique, non-human interpretation of TidalCycles performances” (Ibid., 20).

Cibo and Cibo v2 are examples of autonomous agents that can learn during offline training. Although it is reported that the intention is to explore the agent as a co-performer, at the moment the agent performs solo.


Video 7. Autopia playing on its own and then with human live coders. Vimeo video “Autopia: An AI Collaborator for Live Coding Music Performances (Demo performance)” (1:22) posted by “Norah Lorway” on 19 July 2019.

Autopia is a system that can participate in a collaborative live coding performance. Developed in 2019 by Norah Lorway, Matthew Jarvis, Arthur Wilson, Edward Powley and John Speakman (Lorway et al. 2019), the agent generates code based on genetic algorithms, where multiple generations of agents are created (Video 7). For example, a simple genetic crossover algorithm is used to produce a new agent from two parent agents. At present, the system implements pre-defined templates using a GP algorithm in C# that automatically creates SuperCollider code. Inspired by gamification, the fitness evaluation function required to evaluate the fitness of the population members is currently based on the audience’s feedback (Lorway, Powley and Wilson 2021). The audience can vote in real time using a mobile web app. The participants can score what they are hearing utilizing a slider. The audience’s slider values are averaged to be used for the next generation of agents.

The system was demonstrated by the networked live coding duo Electrowar (Norah Lorway and Arthur Wilson) at the Network Music Festival 2020 using Extramuros for the network collaboration (Ibid). In this performance, Autopia started performing alone while the audience was voting, to then be joined by the human performers.

Autopia exemplifies a virtual multi-agent system of autonomous agents that can interact between themselves with multiplicative actions and can also learn using GP.


Video 8. Niklas Reppel creating a pattern language using the Mégra learning functions. Vimeo video “Mégra — Creating a Pattern Language on the Fly” (1:54) posted by “Park Ellipsen” on 3 March 2019.

A stochastic environment that Nikas Reppel began to work on in 2017, the Mégra System is based on Probabilistic Finite Automata as a data model, was developed with Common Lisp and has SuperCollider as a sound engine (Reppel 2020). The system is designed to work with a small data set that is trained using machine learning techniques and which allows for real-time interaction (Video 8). It is possible to create sequence generators using different techniques (e.g., transition rules, training and inference, manual editing and so on). The model can be visualized in real time as the code is updated.

Mégra exemplifies an autonomous agent that can learn during online training. It also represents cooperation with the human live coder à la musical cyborg, where a continuous dialogue between the human live coder and the system creates a sense of unified identity.

Future Directions

Potential Research in Live Coding

In the process of analyzing the various readings and projects outlined above, a number of further research ideas have emerged.

Out of all the VAs investigated here, only Betablocker (Bovermann and Griffiths 2014; Griffiths 2007) has explicitly explored live coding beyond the laptop and keyboard, in this case a system comprising a game pad and a Gameboy DS. Researching this topic further seems of interest, and could prove to be in alignment with the Internet of Things and smart objects research (Fortino and Trunfio 2014) along with the Internet of Musical Things (Turchet et al. 2018). A prominent criticism of performing music with personal computers and the genre of laptop music has been the lack of bodily interactions, as well as the lack of transparency of the performer’s action. Live coding represents a step forward to avoid obscurantism by projecting the performer’s screen showing the code. However, the performer’s action can still be difficult to understand for an audience with little code literacy. Emphasizing the legibility of the code is relevant so that the processes and decisions taken by both the VA live coder and the human live coder are clear at all times. How to find the right balance between simplicity and complexity remains an open question: “Live coding languages need to avoid unnecessary detail while keeping interesting possibilities open” (Griffiths 2007, 179).

Inspired by the human-centred approach of using machine learning algorithms as a creative musical tool (Fiebrink and Caramiaux 2018), the Mégra system (Reppel 2020) brings the training process of machine learning to the live coding performance so that it is also part of the “algorithmic thinking” of the live coder. The online machine learning training exposed in this system contrasts with the offline training process of machine learning of Cacharpo (Navarro and Ogborn 2017), Cibo (Stewart and Lawson 2019), and Cibo v2 (Stewart et al. 2020). In a survey about the design of future languages and environments for live coding (Kiefer and Magnusson 2019), the respondents highlighted the following features for a live coding language for machine listening and machine learning: flexibility, hackability, musicality and instrumentation of the machine learning training. It would be interesting to compare the same system using both online and offline learning to identify any musical and computational differences. Sema is a user-friendly online system that allows practitioners to create their live coding language and explore machine learning in their live coding practice (Bernardo, Kiefer and Magnusson 2020). The findings from a workshop with Sema indicated that the topics of programming language design and machine learning can be challenging for beginners in computer science. Further research is needed in this area to assess how we might integrate machine learning concepts into the legibility of the code during a live coding session.

Another open question is how to evaluate these new algorithms from a musical and computational perspective (Xambó, Lerch and Freeman 2018; Xambó et al. 2017). Who should evaluate these systems; the audience, the live coder or the virtual agent? How should these systems be evaluated? As previously discussed, there are several theoretical frameworks and approaches that we can borrow, but the literature on evaluating VAs in live coding is scarce. A point of criticism of these systems is the lack of formal evaluation methods and the need to provide better documentation for supporting reproducible research (Wilson, Fazekas and Wiggins 2020). More extensive and consistent documentation and publication of data and code would greatly benefit the advancement of practices and research in the community. 4[4. There are many ideas that could be advanced for increased efforts in this field but that would be out of the scope of the present text.]

Exploring a laptop ensemble with only VAs is proposed in LOLbot’s research findings (Subramanian, Freeman and McCoid 2012). As discussed earlier, we envision multiple agent collaboration or VA-VA collaboration as an interesting research space (Xambó et al. 2017). However, the results of a survey on music AI software (Knotts and Collins 2020) reflect a general preference that VAs should not replace humans, as human creativity is difficult to model. A promising area of research is the alternative roles that VAs can take beyond imitating humans; however, Knotts and Collins have found through their research that “tools that take over or control the creative process are of less interest to music creators than open-ended tools with many possibilities” (Ibid., 504).

Speculative Futures

Perhaps there will come a time when the virtual agents are completely autonomous, become independent of humans and create their own communities (Collins 2011). This raises potential machine ethics that should be considered when designing future generations of VAs. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a valuable precursor for this potential techno-societal challenge (Asimov 1950).

When interacting with humans (HA-VA), what role do we envision for the VAs? (Collins 2011; Subramanian, Freeman and McCoid 2012; Xambó et al. 2017) Intelligent tutors, who can help the learner to develop musical and computational skills? Virtual musicians, who can create new unimaginable music? Co-creative partners, who are always available to rehearse and perform? Computational-led companions, who can speed up the process of live coding? Tools that can help understanding how human live coders improvise together by modelling their behaviours?

If and when we reach the “strategically predictive” level 6 of liveness in the process of programming (Tanimoto 2013), what will the role of the human live coder be? If the VA completes our code or even writes the code on our behalf, can this still be considered a collaborative musical practice? Will this novel approach to music-making change the musical æsthetic? (Kiefer and Magnusson 2019) Is the intention to create a VA that produces a live coding performance indistinguishable from a human live coder and passes the Turing test? (McLean and Wiggins 2010) Are we going to be able to produce VAs that are more responsible for the creative outputs than at present? (Wiggins and Forth 2018)


We have presented a review of past, present and future perspectives of research and practice on virtual agents in live coding. A set of selected references has been distributed into two main categories: conceptual foundations and practical examples. In conceptual foundations, we outlined key terms and theoretical frameworks that can be helpful to understand VAs in live coding. In practical examples, we described exemplary instances of VAs in live coding based on two dimensions, with the assumption that the VAs are autonomous: social interactivity and learnability. We concluded by envisioning further potential research ideas and speculative futures.

Live coding is a promising space in which to explore AI and computational creativity. We have seen a range of perspectives and explorations of what a VA live coder can mean. We are just at the beginning of a technologically promising and conceptually exciting journey.


The MIRLCAuto project is funded by an EPSRC HDI Network Plus Grant — Art, Music, and Culture theme. Special thanks to Gerard Roma for inspiring conversations during the writing of this article.

December 2021, April 2022


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