Thomas Scov­ell

Campaign Middle East - - NEWS -

We’d like to think cre­ativ­ity is the last uniquely hu­man skill, but if de­vel­op­ments in the arts are any­thing to go by, we may need to re­con­sider. In 1906, the com­poser John Philip Sousa de­cried the in­ven­tion of tech­nol­ogy for record­ing mu­sic, such as the gramo­phone, in an es­say en­ti­tled “The Men­ace of Me­chan­i­cal Mu­sic”. Per­haps some­what self­ishly, be­cause com­posers were poorly com­pen­sated for recorded mu­sic at the time, he posited that it of­fered no sub­sti­tute for a live per­for­mance.

Even more rel­e­vantly, he cast his mind back to cen­turies prior when at­tempts to turn mu­sic into a sci­ence had brought about the math­e­ma­ti­sa­tion of com­po­si­tion. Hu­man al­go­rithms, as it were, for cre­at­ing mu­sic.

Could you tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a song writ­ten by a hu­man and a ma­chine? You might think mu­sic writ­ten by al­go­rithms would be un­mis­tak­able for any­thing else – un­til you’ve heard it.

In an episode of the “Switched on Pop” pod­cast, the show’s host, mu­si­col­ogy pro­fes­sor Nate Sloan, was chal­lenged to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween AI and hu­man com­po­si­tions in a mu­si­cal Tur­ing test. Spoiler alert: he failed. And (for any mu­sic snobs) it wasn’t just pop – Sloan also strug­gled to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween Beethoven and com­puter-gen­er­ated clas­si­cal mu­sic.

Yet, de­spite these sim­i­lar­i­ties, most mu­sic fans will say they want AI to have no part in the mu­sic they con­sume. Some­thing just feels wrong about ma­chines in cre­ative do­mains such as the arts.

In 2016 I saw the mu­si­cal the Fence, writ­ten from plot to score by AI. It was av­er­age, at best, even as a cu­rios­ity. But, par­don the pun, it set the stage for the fu­ture of AI in the arts.

In the same way that AI can be fed scores by Beethoven and gen­er­ate some­thing that is Beethoven-es­que enough to fool a mu­sic pro­fes­sor, the AI in­volved in the mu­si­cal was fed a cor­pus of data, in­clud­ing other mu­si­cal scores and li­bretti. It then “learned” from them how to gen­er­ate some­thing novel.

This level of AI is read­ily avail­able within ex­ist­ing mu­sic soft­ware. So there’s a chance you’re al­ready lis­ten­ing to mu­sic in some ways al­go­rith­mi­cally gen­er­ated. Whether made by man or ma­chine, much of to­day’s mu­sic is far from the tra­di­tional singer-song­writer model.

If you look at a mod­ern piece of mu­sic’s cred­its, you’re likely to see up­wards of half a dozen names. Soft­ware gets no such credit, but its fin­ger­prints are al­ready all over to­day’s hits.

So are we be­ing old fash­ioned in our dis­taste for AI-gen­er­ated mu­sic? Maybe we’re just con­tin­u­ing to be un­ac­cept­ing of new tech­nolo­gies, just as 20th-cen­tury com­posers hated the ar­rival of “me­chan­i­cal” mu­sic.

Speak­ing to mu­si­cians and fans at The Great Es­cape fes­ti­val in Brighton – which fea­tured a day ded­i­cated to AI in mu­sic as part of its in­dus­try con­fer­ence this year – the same words cropped up when talk­ing both about AI-as­sisted mu­sic and “pop fac­tory” chart hits: in­au­then­tic, lack­ing soul, con­trived. These aren’t crit­i­cisms of their mu­si­cal qual­i­ties so much as the cre­ation process.

You could say the worst of hu­man-cre­ated pop is made to pay bills and be passed off as the per­former’s work. Hardly how we like to imag­ine the cre­ative process. Whether made by AI or a team of hit­mak­ers, this type of mu­sic lacks au­then­tic­ity. Like the no­tion of the “un­canny val­ley” (when we’re creeped out by ar­ti­fi­cial hu­man faces that look al­most, but not quite, real), there is per­haps a feel­ing of “un­canny melody” when we know AI is in­volved in com­pos­ing a song.

It hits us hard that one of the things that makes us hu­man, cre­ativ­ity, is be­ing taken away from us. But, un­aware of this, we feel the same con­nec­tion be­tween us and the artist that has made mu­sic the en­gage­ment art form it al­ways has been.

Mean­while, in the world of com­mer­cial cre­ativ­ity, per­haps we should just ac­cept we will be col­lab­o­rat­ing with AI to make ad­ver­tis­ing and fig­ure out on how we will do so. Be­cause, just like the hit pa­rade, most con­sumers don’t care – they just like what they like.


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