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Sónar+D debates AI and music: ‘We are almost at the alchemist level…’


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The question of AI and machine creativity has been creeping into mainstream music industry thinking over the past few years, with the increasing use of AI to make music posing questions about copyright, originality and even playlist placing.

The Sónar festival, which is taking place in Barcelona this week, is one of the first big music events to put AI at its centre. Three artists who make music with AI – Holly Herndon, Actress and K Á R Y Y N – will be playing live at the festival, with Actress actually billed alongside his AI creation Young Paint.

The subject also came up at Sónar+D, the festival’s “creativity, technology and business” strand. On the opening day of the event a heavyweight academic panel made up of panelists from several Barcelona universities examined the question: “Are we sowing fear of Artificial Intelligence”.

Ramón López de Mantaras, Research Professor of the Spanish National Research Council, pondered the question of whether machines can be truly creative. “Let’s take a definition of creativity that is: coming up with something new, that has a value, by combining existing elements. It can be an aesthetic value, like painting or music. When you use this definition, combining existing elements in a new way, then a machine can do that quite easily. There are examples in music composition or performing that is done by machines,” he said.

“What a computer or a machine can’t do, is very high level forms of creativity that imply breaking rules,” he added, giving the examples of Schönberg’s megaphonic music and cubism. “This type of creativity, that involves breaking rules and inventing new styles, will be out of the ability of the machines for a very long time.”

Maite López, coordinator of the inter-university master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Barcelona, questioned the role of AI in music recommendation. “Spotify recommends playlists, the idea behind this is the recommendation is based on actions and profiles and other users. If someone of a similar profile is listening to something then you might be interested in listening to it. And it makes sense. But what does it mean? That we only take songs that are liked by people who are similar to us?” she asked.

Spotify, she added, is trying to avoid this homogeneity with the launch of Global Cultures, a project to recommend music from around the world, while Pandora uses human recommendation as well as machine.

“There are also deep learning methods, AI algorithms, that analyse the songs and try and find similar songs based on the patterns of the music,” López said. “We can be open and include diversity. But we need to be aware how these decisions are made. We should ask – are you offering me this song because my friend is listening to it or because a company is offering me this song?”

So should we be afraid of AI? De Mantaras says no. “There is a lot of confusion over what is the real AI. AI is only 60 years old. For a knowledge of science this is nothing,” he said. “We are almost at the alchemist level of AI. It bothers me very much when people compare it to human intelligence. They are very different things.”

Other panels on the opening day of Sónar+D tackled topics such as Creativity in the Age of Quantum Computing and gender equality in music festivals. The former panel addressed the role of artists in explaining new technology, and specifically quantum computing. After a brief introduction to what quantum computing actually is, Libby Heaney, an artist, researcher and tutor at the Royal College of Art with a background in quantum computing, explained that part of her job is to think about the intersection between quantum computing and art.

“As an artist, I want to ask what it [AI] means and think more about social and political questions that artists can ask but often get lost in science,” she said. “This is something artists do frequently – we are always questioning what technology means within a context.”

“[Quantum computing] is really weird, which is why we need artists to help us understand it,” added fellow panelist, IBM’s Dr Holly Cummins.

Ben Cardew

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