Can an AI Program Be a Musician?

Computers and artificial intelligence are advancing at an exponential rate. New applications and uses for these technologies are announced daily, and there does not seem to be an end in sight to their capabilities. Even in areas such as the arts, computers are making an impact. In fact, the next catchy tune you hear on the radio may not have been written fully by a human.

Computers might be able to write songs in the future

While we may be a long way away from computers or AI making what humans would call “art,” they have already made an entry into the field – somewhat. A YouTube musician by the name of Taryn Southern recently released a song that she says was made in collaboration with an AI algorithm, not a person. She wrote the lyrics and the melody to the song, but apparently the backing track was built by the computer.

It should be noted that the program that wrote the backing track took a lot of tweaking and work itself in order to produce an acceptable result. This is to be expected, since computers are tools that need calibration and cannot – at least yet – make artistic decisions on their own. Apparently, when left to its own devices, this program produces incredibly poor music. But with the help of musicians and innovators such as Southern, music built by computers may not be such a novel thing in the not-too-distant future.

No need for artists to worry yet

It is understandably jarring to see a machine start to make music. I’m not an artist, but I could see how this might be unsettling. Luckily, there does not seem to be much cause for concern yet. As Southern noted, the program requires an incredible amount of work to make it anywhere near acceptable to audiences. This is not a computer taking someone’s job; it is a computer augmenting someone’s job.

The difference is profound. It is unlikely that computers will ever get close to taking over some of the industries that require the human touch: patient care, the arts, academia, and the like. Humans are just better at those things; in fact, we’re better than computers at a lot of things. We would do well to remember that in the face of a world freaking out that computers are going to ruin humanity.

I’ve said before that computers, robots, and programs taking many of the low-skilled and outright dangerous jobs from humans may be a good thing. But it may also be a good thing to have the jobs for which humans are uniquely qualified be augmented by computers. At the end of the day, we have to remember that computers are tools. We made them to make us better at what we do.

To be fair, this is also not the first time that musicians have utilized tools – electronic or otherwise – to make their music better. Beat-keeping devices, drum machines, and looping devices are all examples of how we make tools to make us better.

We’ll get over this fear of “digitization” the very moment we realize that making these devices reveals just another aspect of that complex whole that is humanity.