Rise of the machines

As a PR exercise, you’ve got to admit, it’s not bad – Wagner’s Ring Cycle played “live” by a computer.

Bound to generate a response, that one.

And as an extraordinary feat of patient programming, you’ve got to admire the tenacity of somebody prepared to input the whole Ring, note by note, into a computer.

Hats off to you, mate. I give up in seconds if the wi-fi is even a wee bit slow.

You can even make the argument that hearing a digitised orchestra in a theatre environment is an experiment we should embrace, simply to see how far computers have come.

Yet there is a place deep, deep in my being that has been screaming “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!” day and night since I heard this story.

The idea of a computer replacing a live orchestra in some sort of half-assed sci-fi-meets-classical-music mashup absolutely chills me to the bone.

I’m not the only one. Almost all of my professional colleagues have expressed concern, disgust, and even outrage at the thought of a computer programme replacing a live orchestra.

It’s hardly surprising. It’s been 22 years since my first paid gig, and, like every conscientious musician should, I have steadily practiced and honed my craft throughout those two decades to make me a better performer in every sense. The idea that a computer could replace me after all that hard work and investment of time, energy, and money, is terrifying and appalling.

I’m sure there was similar outrage in the chess world in May 1997 when world champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by an IBM computer called Deep Blue.

Opposing the ominous onslaught of technology is akin to King Canute trying to stop the tide with a wave of his arm. Pointless and ridiculous. The relentless march of invention and industry has claimed millions of human jobs throughout history, robbing skilled workers of their livelihood and crushing communities.

This is true in almost every field EXCEPT the arts. We lucky few seem to have thus far dodged the twin bullets of industrialisation and computerisation, where so many other professions have been decimated.

Why? What’s so special about us?

Simply put, whether you’re a painter, poet, playwright, sculptor, composer, writer, dancer, or musician, you have something a computer can never replace. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all bible-thumpy on you and claim that it’s your soul, although many people might call it that. I’m talking about human expression. You are lucky enough to work in an industry which requires it for its very existence.

It seems to me that we have risen to be the dominant species on our planet thanks in no small part to our need to communicate. Words, thoughts, ideas, emotions – we humans have an insuppressible desire to share everything we know and feel, and throughout our development as a species this desire has expressed itself best, and most efficiently and poignantly, through art.

Art, and music in particular, is the one truly common language of our world. People who share not a single word of vocabulary in common can pick up their instruments and make music together. Intuitive empathy and human expressiveness in their most raw form allow musicians to understand one another perfectly.

This is a miracle of human existence that no computer programme will ever be able to emulate. As long as computers rely on mathematics and algorithms, they will never be capable of true musical expression.

So I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button just yet.

If, however, in true Terminator fashion, computers ever become self-aware, then we might indeed have something very serious to worry about.

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