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Are Machines Capable of Creating Art?

December 11, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

I suspect that to be able to honestly answer the question of whether or not machines are capable of creating art will require a completely new conception of what, exactly, is art. I tend to think of art as something that is produced by the human mind that stirs an aesthetic response that may not be easy to convey with words. More broadly, I also think of art as being something which can exist as the natural state of the universe, such as a picture of a nebula.

If the Carina nebula doesn’t stir a sense of cosmic wonder and awe within your soul you may need a pair of glasses to see it better.

For me, it’s really difficult to really pin down what art is, much less what is good art. Iamus is, briefly, a machine that was designed to create full pieces of classical music without human intervention. The only way I can talk about Iamus’s music is subjectively, based on my own aesthetic sense. With that said, I’ll start by posting Iamus’s composition “Adsum” so that I can begin a critique of it.

The first thing I notice when the music starts to play is that I’m wondering, “Is the entire orchestra playing off key?” The entire piece sounds out of tune, and as a result, the effect of the otherwise brilliant technique by the orchestra is lost amongst the cacophonous mess of Adsum. Surely I do sense an underlying pattern and logic to the piece, but as it plays on to about the 3:20 mark it feels as if there is an increasingly random quality to it.

One of the pleasures of listening to Mozart or Beethoven is feeling emotions buried in the music, and with every note sharing in a sense of joy or loss or wonder. Adsum makes me feel many things and nothing all at once, as if my brain is trying to piece together different colored threads and force them into a coherent pattern where one does not exist.

If you, like me, get a headache from listening to that piece for too long you have my most sincere apologies.

So what is this weaver of discordant music, Iamus? According to wikipedia, Iamus is a “computer cluster (a half-cabinet encased in a custom shell) located at Universidad de Málaga…” that can “…create a full composition in different musical formats…”

This is the headache inducing musician.

The “Melomics” page at the Grupo de Estudios en Biomimética shines further light on the processes by which this computer creates music:

These innovative systems applies non-conventional evolutionary algorithms to composing songs without human intervention. The algorithm operates on data structures (functioning as genomes) which indirectly encode the melodies: each genome undergoes an artificial developmental process to generate the corresponding song.

While music is, at its basest form, mathematics, I think that the amelodic (to my ears) nature of Adsum belies this fact. I think that this speaks to the idea that music, in an aesthetic sense and not just a collection of mathematical variables, relies on more than just algorithms. There are, at least, two people involved in the creation of music: the musician and the listener. I don’t doubt that the music produced by Iamus is technically classical music in structure and execution, but when I listen to it I can’t relate it to any classical musician I have ever heard.

There are rumblings around the net (here, for instance) that Iamus may be the next Mozart. I do not share that sentiment. I think it may be a step on the evolutionary ladder toward machine intelligences that could produce music that doesn’t strain the ears, but Iamus itself seems unable, as of now, to do so. If Iamus is the forerunner to this technology, its name is especially prescient as in Greek mythology, Iamus was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. It is conceivable that modern composers may get a glimpse of what the musical future has to offer through Iamus, which could spark new creative flames within them.

But perhaps I’m thinking too narrowly. Maybe art demands that I broaden my scope and think beyond the not-so-dulcet tones of Adsum. The first production by Iamus was entitled “Hello World!” and is played with a clarinet, a violin, and a piano.

It’s not really that bad, but I still wouldn’t put it on par with a modern composer, and it suffers from the same lack of sense that I feel that Adsum has. But beyond that, what does “Hello World!” actually mean? When I first began programming, the first program that I coded was a basic “Hello World” design. It was object-oriented, so when I pushed a button on the “Form” a text box displayed the phrase “Hello World!”

In many ways, I think that we may be witnessing the birth of a complex process that will grow more sophisticated and produce music that may be more appealing. “Hello World!” was Iamus’s first loud declaration of being in this world, and though it might not create music which one like myself would call pleasing, it does create music. And in this sense, I think that not only is the music that Iamus creates art, but Iamus itself is art. I can conceive of Iamus itself as an instrument of music, and the notes in the score to be interpreted by the human playing it. As time goes on, and the software grows and evolves, the music has the potential to be truly groundbreaking and original.

Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll get a hologram version of Iamus who can sing “Rondine al Nido” with the best of them.

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