A friend sent me a link yesterday to an article about a Man named David Copes, who has created artificial intelligence software that composes music. So far, so good. The issue is that Cope’s software composes music that is, in some cases, virtually indistinguishable from the work of a human composer. Music in which the software derived Bach’s rules to produce music in the style of Bach, for example, has fooled an audience unable to distinguish “real” Bach from music composed by the program.
This really ticked people off.
Cope, who began his project because he genuinely wanted to create beautiful music, takes the view that there is no inherent superiority in music or writing created by a human artist rather than a computer. (Apparently, in addition to composing music, software can be created to replicate Shakespearean sonnets, among other things).
In his view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination.
Despite being lambasted by many in the artistic and scientific community, Cope continues to use his software for the purpose he originally envisioned: working with it to compose original works that he hopes will move and enchant listeners as traditional compositions have done for centuries. In response to criticism that a machine can’t possibly create art that speaks to the receiver in the same way as Rilke or Rachmaninov, he answers that humans do not create art from some magical hollow tree of the soul; they assemble and build from what came before, consciously or not. The finished product may be a breathtaking assemblage, but it is always, always based on and related to every sound the artist has ever heard, every word she has ever read, and all of the other art she has observed.
[Cope] is now convinced that, in many ways, machines can be more creative than people. They’re able to introduce random notions and reassemble old elements in new ways, without any of the hang-ups or preconceptions of humanity.
“We are so damned biased, even those of us who spend all our lives attempting not to be biased. Just the mere fact that when we like the taste of something, we tend to eat it more than we should. We have our physical body telling us things, and we can’t intellectually govern it the way we’d like to,” he says.
In other words, humans are more robotic than machines. “The question,” Cope says, “isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.”
I am happy for Mr. Cope, in a we-are-all-humans-let’s-embrace-humanity kind of way, and I agree with him that the art that we see does not spring whole from the head and heart of an artist, but is made up of bits and pieces of everything the creator has ever heard, seen or experienced. Sometimes it’s very clear – Vivaldi did write a lot of very similar works in the process of growing and refining his composition, and it is nearly impossible to write anything without the influence of everything you have ever read. It may be true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and I’m okay with that.
I admit, though, to a sense of loss, and to feeling foolish for believing that I have found, in art, the messages of artistic souls yearning to be heard. When I read a short story that stuns me with its beauty, am I really just reading a sliced and diced version of all of the Carver, James and Elliott that the writer read in the past? If I sit listening to Vaughan Williams “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and watching the falling snow, am I moved by nothing more than Vaughan Williams regurgitation of Tallises regurgitation of some other music he had in his subconscious? Are the artists that I love really nothing more than masterful assemblers of the flotsam and jetsam of life, giving me not a unique expression of their visions, but a skillful packaging job? Do they really have less soul than computer software?!
There is also, of course, the question of whether a person like me should bother to write. I have long believed that I was telling stories that were unique to my experience, and filtering them through some spiritual lense that was as unique to me as a snowflake or a fingerprint. I knew I had influences, of course, but now I wonder whether I am actually creating or inventing anything new and useful, or merely shining a light on what was already there, relying on ideas, turns of phrase and syntax that are already filed in my mind (and, possibly, in yours). If I delight myself because I have found the perfect phrase, am I just a deluded idiot who is channeling something I heard on the bus, or read in a poetry anthology years ago? If it is true, as Cope claims, that I am “more robotic than a machine” by virtue of my inability to master my biases and impulses, that I may, in fact, have no soul, yearning or otherwise, what’s the point?
Here’s what I think, what I can accept and live with. All artists are building on the sights, sounds and experiences of the natural world, and the art of their predecessors or contemporaries. The assembly of those influences is, perhaps, the art – there is a voice, there is a desire to communicate, to create an emotional response or make a statement, but the creative act involves our own (non-artificial) intelligence, and yes, or souls. It isn’t important to me, really, that a painting, a poem or a string quartet was imagined in some hermetically sealed artistic vacuum; it matters that the artist used and built on the world around him to make something new and unique in its evocative powers. If a computer can do it too, I can live with that, and who knows; I might come to love music composed by artificial intelligence as much as I love Brahms and Monk. I will never, however, believe that it has more soul, or that it has been wrought to form that beautiful, filamentary bond that exists between an artist and her audience.