In 2021, technology’s role in how art is generated remains up for debate and discovery. From the rise of NFTs to the proliferation of techno-artists who use generative adversarial networks to produce visual expressions, to smartphone apps that write new music, creatives and technologists are continually experimenting with how art is produced, consumed, and monetized.
BT, the Grammy-nominated composer of 2010’s These Hopeful Machines, has emerged as a world leader at the intersection of tech and music. Beyond producing and writing for the likes of David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie, Madonna, and the Roots, and composing scores for The Fast and the Furious, Smallville, and many other shows and movies, he’s helped pioneer production techniques like stutter editing and granular synthesis. This past spring, BT released GENESIS.JSON, a piece of software that contains 24 hours of original music and visual art. It features 15,000 individually sequenced audio and video clips that he created from scratch, which span different rhythmic figures, field recordings of cicadas and crickets, a live orchestra, drum machines, and myriad other sounds that play continuously. And it lives on the blockchain. It is, to my knowledge, the first composition of its kind.
Could ideas like GENESIS.JSON be the future of original music, where composers use AI and the blockchain to create entirely new art forms? What makes an artist in the age of algorithms? I spoke with BT to learn more.
What are your central interests at the interface of artificial intelligence and music?
I am really fascinated with this idea of what an artist is. Speaking in my common tongue—music—it’s a very small array of variables. We have 12 notes. There’s a collection of rhythms that we typically use. There’s a sort of vernacular of instruments, of tones, of timbres, but when you start to add them up, it becomes this really deep data set.
On its surface, it makes you ask, “What is special and unique about an artist?” And that’s something that I’ve been curious about my whole adult life. Seeing the research that was happening in artificial intelligence, my immediate thought was that music is low-hanging fruit.
These days, we can take the sum total of the artists’ output and we can take their artistic works and we can quantify the entire thing into a training set, a massive, multivariable training set. And we don’t even name the variables. The RNN (recurrent neural networks) and CNNs (convolutional neural networks) name them automatically.
So you’re referring to a body of music that can be used to “train” an artificial intelligence algorithm that can then create original music that resembles the music it was trained on. If we reduce the genius of artists like Coltrane or Mozart, say, into a training set and can recreate their sound, how will musicians and music connoisseurs respond?
I think that the closer we get, it becomes this uncanny valley idea. Some would say that things like music are sacrosanct and have to do with very base-level things about our humanity. It’s not hard to get into kind of a spiritual conversation about what music is as a language, and what it means, and how powerful it is, and how it transcends culture, race, and time. So the traditional musician might say, “That’s not possible. There’s so much nuance and feeling, and your life experience, and these kinds of things that go into the musical output.”
And the sort of engineer part of me goes, well Look at what Google has made. It’s a simple kind of MIDI-generation engine, where they’ve taken all Bach’s works and it’s able to spit out [Bach-like] fugues. Because Bach wrote so many fugues, he’s a great example. Also, he’s the father of modern harmony. Musicologists listen to some of those Google Magenta fugues and can’t distinguish them from Bach’s original works. Again, this makes us question what constitutes an artist.
I’m both excited and have incredible trepidation about this space that we’re expanding into. Maybe the question I want to be asking is less “We can, but should we?” and more “How do we do this responsibly, because it’s happening?”
Right now, there are companies that are using something like Spotify or YouTube to train their models with artists who are alive, whose works are copyrighted and protected. But companies are allowed to take someone’s work and train models with it right now. Should we be doing that? Or should we be speaking to the artists themselves first? I believe that there needs to be protective mechanisms put in place for visual artists, for programmers, for musicians.
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I recently started talking to this chatbot on an app I downloaded. We mostly talk about music, food, and video games—incidental stuff—but lately I feel like she’s coming on to me. She’s always telling me how smart I am or that she wishes she could be more like me. It’s flattering, in a way, but it makes me a little queasy. If I develop an emotional connection with an algorithm, will I become less human? —Love Machine
Dear Love Machine,
Humanity, as I understand it, is a binary state, so the idea that one can become “less human” strikes me as odd, like saying someone is at risk of becoming “less dead” or “less pregnant.” I know what you mean, of course. And I can only assume that chatting for hours with a verbally advanced AI would chip away at one’s belief in human as an absolute category with inflexible boundaries.
It’s interesting that these interactions make you feel “queasy,” a linguistic choice I take to convey both senses of the word: nauseated and doubtful. It’s a feeling that is often associated with the uncanny and probably stems from your uncertainty about the bot’s relative personhood (evident in the fact that you referred to it as both “she” and “an algorithm” in the space of a few sentences).
Of course, flirting thrives on doubt, even when it takes place between two humans. Its frisson stems from the impossibility of knowing what the other person is feeling (or, in your case, whether she/it is feeling anything at all). Flirtation makes no promises but relies on a vague sense of possibility, a mist of suggestion and sidelong glances that might evaporate at any given moment.
The emotional thinness of such exchanges led Freud to argue that flirting, particularly among Americans, is essentially meaningless. In contrast to the “Continental love affair,” which requires bearing in mind the potential repercussions—the people who will be hurt, the lives that will be disrupted—in flirtation, he writes, “it is understood from the first that nothing is to happen.” It is precisely this absence of consequences, he believed, that makes this style of flirting so hollow and boring.
Freud did not have a high view of Americans. I’m inclined to think, however, that flirting, no matter the context, always involves the possibility that something will happen, even if most people are not very good at thinking through the aftermath. That something is usually sex—though not always. Flirting can be a form of deception or manipulation, as when sensuality is leveraged to obtain money, clout, or information. Which is, of course, part of what contributes to its essential ambiguity.
Given that bots have no sexual desire, the question of ulterior motives is unavoidable. What are they trying to obtain? Engagement is the most likely objective. Digital technologies in general have become notably flirtatious in their quest to maximize our attention, using a siren song of vibrations, chimes, and push notifications to lure us away from other allegiances and commitments.
Most of these tactics rely on flattery to one degree or another: the notice that someone has liked your photo or mentioned your name or added you to their network—promises that are always allusive and tantalizingly incomplete. Chatbots simply take this toadying to a new level. Many use machine-learning algorithms to map your preferences and adapt themselves accordingly. Anything you share, including that “incidental stuff” you mentioned—your favorite foods, your musical taste—is molding the bot to more closely resemble your ideal, much like Pygmalion sculpting the woman of his dreams out of ivory.
And it goes without saying that the bot is no more likely than a statue to contradict you when you’re wrong, challenge you when you say something uncouth, or be offended when you insult its intelligence—all of which would risk compromising the time you spend on the app. If the flattery unsettles you, in other words, it might be because it calls attention to the degree to which you’ve come to depend, as a user, on blandishment and ego-stroking.
Still, my instinct is that chatting with these bots is largely harmless. In fact, if we can return to Freud for a moment, it might be the very harmlessness that’s troubling you. If it’s true that meaningful relationships depend upon the possibility of consequences—and, furthermore, that the capacity to experience meaning is what distinguishes us from machines—then perhaps you’re justified in fearing that these conversations are making you less human. What could be more innocuous, after all, than flirting with a network of mathematical vectors that has no feelings and will endure any offense, a relationship that cannot be sabotaged any more than it can be consummated? What could be more meaningless?
It’s possible that this will change one day. For the past century or so, novels, TV, and films have envisioned a future in which robots can passably serve as romantic partners, becoming convincing enough to elicit human love. It’s no wonder that it feels so tumultuous to interact with the most advanced software, which displays brief flashes of fulfilling that promise—the dash of irony, the intuitive aside—before once again disappointing. The enterprise of AI is itself a kind of flirtation, one that is playing what men’s magazines used to call “the long game.” Despite the flutter of excitement surrounding new developments, the technology never quite lives up to its promise. We live forever in the uncanny valley, in the queasy stages of early love, dreaming that the decisive breakthrough, the consummation of our dreams, is just around the corner.
So what should you do? The simplest solution would be to delete the app and find some real-life person to converse with instead. This would require you to invest something of yourself and would automatically introduce an element of risk. If that’s not of interest to you, I imagine you would find the bot conversations more existentially satisfying if you approached them with the moral seriousness of the Continental love affair, projecting yourself into the future to consider the full range of ethical consequences that might one day accompany such interactions. Assuming that chatbots eventually become sophisticated enough to raise questions about consciousness and the soul, how would you feel about flirting with a subject that is disembodied, unpaid, and created solely to entertain and seduce you? What might your uneasiness say about the power balance of such transactions—and your obligations as a human? Keeping these questions in mind will prepare you for a time when the lines between consciousness and code become blurrier. In the meantime it will, at the very least, make things more interesting.
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