Artist Holly Herndon releases an album featuring an artificial intelligence ‘musician’

5 min read

The strange mixture of panic and excitement around artificial intelligence only appears to grow as the world uncovers new and more novel ways of using it. These waves of innovation then only feed into continuing cycles of stories that have a habit of perpetuating misleading ideas about both the threats and opportunities it presents. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that there’s a serious misunderstanding of what artificial intelligence really is and how it works – as Rowel Atienza told us last month, “we’re still very far from robots taking over society.”

However, artist Holly Herndon (who, incidentally, is a researcher at Stanford) is getting listeners to think differently about artificial intelligence. On her latest album PROTO, which was released today, she’s using it to augment and complement her music.

Holly Herndon’s AI agent, Spawn

The special guest that makes PROTO remarkable is Spawn, an AI agent created by Herndon, her husband, and a software engineer. What makes Spawn particularly significant is that Herndon doesn’t use it to replace or recreate something but instead as something that exists alongside human activity and creativity.

How does Spawn work?

Spawn was ‘trained’ on the music that Herndon and her band were writing for the album. In essence, then, this makes it quite different from the way in which AI is typically used, in that it was developed around a new dataset, not an existing one.

When we use existing data sets – and especially when we use them uncritically, without any awareness of how they reproduce or hide certain biases – the AI develops around those very biases. However, when learning from the new ‘data’, which bears all the marks of Herndon’s creative decision making, Spawn almost becomes a ‘creative’ AI agent.

If you listen to the album, it’s not always that easy to spot which parts are created by the artificial intelligence and which are made by human musicians. This combination of creative ‘sources’ means Herndon’s album forces us to ask questions about how we use AI and how it interacts with our lives. It quite deliberately engages with the conversation around ethics in AI that has been taking place across the tech industry over the last year or so.

“The advent of sampling raised many questions about the ethical use of material created by others,” Herndon wrote in a statement published on Twitter at the end of 2018, “but the era of machine legible culture accelerates and abstracts that conversation.”

What does Holly Herndon’s album tell us about artificial intelligence?

PROTO raises a number of really important questions about artificial intelligence. First and foremost, it suggests that artificial intelligence isn’t a replacement for human intelligence. Spawn isn’t used to take the jobs from any musicians, but rather extends what’s sonically possible. It adds to their capabilities, giving it a new dimension.

Furthermore, just as Herndon refuses to see artificial intelligence as something which can replicate human labor – or creativity – it also points out some of the very problems with this kind of understanding: the idea that AI can ‘replicate’ human intelligence at all.

Instead, the album’s merging of the human and the artificial is a way of exploring the weaknesses of artificial intelligence. This is a way of making AI more transparent. It opens up something that so seems seamless, and highlights the ways it doesn’t quite work. It almost refracts rather than mimics the sound the human musicians make.

As Herndon said in an interview with Jezebel publication The Muse, “the technology is impressive and it’s cool but it’s really early still. We really wanted to be honest about that and show its mistakes and show how kind of rough the technology is still because… it’s more honest and more interesting, to allow it to have its own aesthetic.”

Read next: Why an algorithm will never win a Pulitzer

The human side of AI technology

But the album does more than just present AI as a flawed tool that can complement human ingenuity.

It also asks us about ownership and creativity. It uses the technology as a way of tackling human questions like “what does it mean to create something?” and “who’s even allowed to create things?”

This is important when we consider the fact that not only does someone control and own a given algorithm – as in literally owning the intellectual property – but also that someone owns and controls the swathes of data that are, at a really fundamental level, crucial to artificial intelligence being possible at all.

“The history of music and our shared, human, intellectual project that leads up to today, is a shared resource that we all tap into and we all learn from,” Herndon also said in the interview with Jezebel. “So if an individual can just scrape that and then claim so much of that as their own because they hold the keys to this AI, and then they can recreate it, of course it’s going to give people anxiety because there’s an ethical issue with that.”

Read next: Sex robots, artificial intelligence, and ethics: How desire shapes and is shaped by algorithms

Instrumental and aesthetic artificial intelligence

One of the main reasons artificial intelligence has become a buzzword is because it’s a tool for industry. It has a commercial value; it can improve efficiency by allowing us to do more with less.

The value of an album like PROTO – even if it’s not the sort of thing you’d usually listen to – is that it removes artificial intelligence from a context in which it is instrumentalized, and puts it into one that’s purely aesthetic.

To make that clearer, it changes something we’d typically think about in a functional manner – is it working? is it doing what it’s supposed to do? – to something in which it’s very function is open to question.

If Herndon’s album is able to do that in even the smallest way, then that can only be a good thing, right? And even if it doesn’t – at least it sounds good…

Richard Gall
Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.

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