By the 2030s 30% of existing UK jobs will be automated, a March PWC report estimated. This should come as no surprise; the threat posed by artificial intelligence to the manufacturing, transportation and retail industries are well documented. Most of us are aware of the prospect of self-driving cars or even robot carers for the elderly, and some of us may even fear the day when Artificial Intelligence renders our species obsolete.
Given the excitement and doom-mongering anticipating AI, it is no wonder that investors are hedging their bets on robots taking over. Besides those sectors where manual workers are at risk, however, recent developments in the technology have also put the spotlight on the creative industries, particularly the music business. That’s right, not even musicians are safe from the robot revolution.
Not long ago researchers at Sony unveiled the first pop song composed by AI: ‘Daddy’s Car.’ This may have musicians feeling anxious about their livelihood, but the prospect of creative AI is likely to force us all to do some soul-searching. Our creativity has long been regarded as a hallmark of our humanity. Our ability to paint a masterpiece or compose a grand opera is part of what makes our species unique; we consider some of our greatest artists to be of our greatest men. A re-think of what it means to be human, therefore, will be necessary if AI ever matches our creative potential.
‘Daddy’s Car’ certainly won’t be going to number 1, but it is hardly bad for a first effort. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? Researchers at Sony CSL created ‘Daddy’s Car’ with so-called Flow Machines. That is, the artificial intelligence composed its own music by combining small elements from a large database of pre-existing tracks. In this case, ‘Daddy’s Car’ was composed in the style of the Beatles after being fed a chunk of the fab four’s back-catalogue. French composer Benoit Carre subsequently arranged the track and composed the lyrics, resulting in a surprisingly hummable tune reminiscent of 60’s psychedelia. In theory, the Flow Machines allow for songs to be composed in any genre or in the style of any artist, yet it is unlikely that AI is soon going to be topping the charts and putting pop stars out of a job; after all, there is more to the music business than music.
All art is in some way an act of communication between artist and audience; that is, art is a social activity. Is it likely that AI will one day headline Glastonbury? Probably not. Fans crave a human connection from their favourite stars, and more than anything modern artists are brands. T.V programmes like the X Factor show that people crave a human story behind a good voice. Listeners want to be able to relate to performers. Yet as our lives are integrated more with technology, technology becomes less alien to us. Listening to an AI composed track may one day feel no different than listening to a synthesizer.
All this raises the real issue of AI facing musicians. Not that they are going to be replaced by robots, but that the incorporation of AI into the music industry will have consequences for the creative process, and threatens to cut off a vital source of musicians’ income. Start-ups in music composition have already caught the attention of investors.
Jukedeck, for instance, is a start-up that allows users to fill in a number of items such as genre and mood, giving them a custom song made by an algorithm. AIVA (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) is a similar program that composes classical music, aimed at supplying musical pieces as soundtracks for films, advertising and games. Unlike the Flow Machines that composed ‘Daddy’s Car,’ however, AIVA is already proficient at its given task. When it took part in a musical Turing Test, no human participants could tell that AIVA’s compositions were composed by artificial intelligence. Furthermore, AIVA has become the first non-human to be given the official status of composer, with all its works being copyrighted under its own name.
‘In the future AI will not replace our creative people; rather, creativity is going to be defined by our interaction with technology.’
This is likely to set off alarm bells within the music industry. The record industry is just recovering from a drastic decline in sales following the rise of streaming services; as such, syncing music to films and commercials has become a vital source of revenue for songwriters, whilst it has also helped emerging artists gain vital exposure. When the expensive and complex process of licencing a song can be bypassed by the availability of a product like Jukedeck, this is likely to result in a decline in syncing, thus draining from artists yet another source of income. AIVA proves that AI is already capable of producing not just music that is listenable, but even music that is enjoyable. This inevitably has consequences for our understanding of what constitutes art, and ultimately begs the question: does art have to be manmade?
Today art is still often appreciated with reference to romantic notions surrounding the individual as a channel of personal expression. But when a computer can compose in a few minutes a fugue it took Bach months to compose, all of a sudden this illusion is shattered and artistic intention becomes less of a concern.
Nevertheless, in all likelihood, in the future AI will not replace our creative people; rather, creativity is going to be defined by our interaction with technology. This is nothing new. From the electric guitar to sampling, new technologies have always helped shape and define how we make music. Google’s new Magenta Project, for instance, has been set-up with the aim of ‘using machines to create art and music.’ Yet the company is betting on musicians collaborating with AI as opposed to being replaced by it. This is most likely to be the case. Key to creativity is innovation, and innovate is something a machine cannot do. For now at least AI compositions have been solely derivative. Human progress is reliant on our ability to reinvent and move beyond the past, and though technology may form a big part of our ability to do so, I expect people will always crave a touch of humanity.