Sunday, March 11, 2012

Music for Computers

ENIAC boards or early keytars?
I've been thinking about human - computer interaction, and it strikes me that the philosophical questions central to early Artificial Intelligence research do not seem to have much resonance any longer. In the 50's and 60's, research into AI led to many innovations in computing. But it also caused people to worry about the future of humanity. Joseph Weizenbaum, designer of the ELIZA program, which seemed so close to passing the Turing Test half a century ago, afterwards turned against AI research due to its imagined consequences. The most striking image of the computer that the 60's left us with is HAL, an embodiment of the singularity in which human life is no longer rational.

But now, the singularity is mostly the stuff of Hollywood, filling in for Nazi's or Communists. The philosophical question that arises from the the Matrix is, 'Dude, what if we're in the Matrix?' The doomsday scenario today is a product of human hubris (man-made climate change, bio-medically-engineered zombies, or radiation-induced mutation), not thinking machines. The singularity, according to futurologists like Ray Kurzweil, is something to be embraced, not feared

I think the main reason the mood has changed is that computers are no longer as alien as they once were. They used to be huge machines that had to be talked to with 0's and 1's. They were very smart in certain respects, but unfathomably stupid in others. They existed in places like MIT, not the living room or minivan. In the 70's, however, computers started to become a part of our everyday lives. One way this happened was through music.

I used to have one of these
The 80's might have been the decade in which electronic music became mainstream, but it was the 70's when new technologies like synthesizers, drum machines, and tapes were really explored and developed. Here's a broad sample of some early electronic music. It's not always made by computers, but I often listen to it in front of one. Check out:

Sly and the Family Stone - It's a Family Affair - First use of a drum machine.

Brian Eno - Big Ship - Pioneering warm, synthesized sound.

Kraftwerk - Robots - Hilarious 'live' show.

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder - I Feel Love - Post-disco is a lot better than disco.

Einojuhani Rautavaara - Cantus Articus - Tape machines and orchestras unite.

In sum, the philosophical questions of early AI have faded away with the growing ubiquity of computers. Computers have become products and extensions of our thought, not alternatives to it. We already know what computers are. They send email and show us YouTube videos. We stare at their spreadsheets all day long at work. I wonder if computers have become too near for us to ask questions about their objective value. But perhaps this is just a story of a very abstract question ('Will computers one day think?') becoming more concrete ('How can we make a search engine that knows what you want even if you don't?' or 'How can we make a better-sounding guitar?').

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