02:42:34 pm on
Monday 22 Jul 2024

An Avalanche of Drivel
David Simmonds

Have you seen 1996 Tom Hanks movie, “That Thing You Do”? It was about a high school rock band that became an overnight sensation. It featured some catchy songs, which sounded for like the work of the Beatles.

The Rutles were much the same.

As you analyzed it, you realized it wasn’t. Someone must have spent hours and hours composing ersatz Beatles songs and doing a darn fine job). The same scenario with the 1978 movie, “The Rutles,” brought to us by some of the Monty Python imaginations.

Those song efforts threaten to become historical curiosities. Nowadays, you can put a computer neural network to work learning what a Beatles song sounds like. Then you get it to create a Beatles-like song.

Theoretically, the software will not produce just one of the one song ala a Beatles, but dozens, hundreds, millions, even trillions, at the flick of a command switch. Let’s call it “Artificial Intelligence (AI) music.”

Such is the promise held out by Project Magenta, from Google, which aims to use AI music to give artists a whole array of new tools with which to create art. The Magenta project is by no means the first AI music out of the starting blocks; you can already find examples of jazz and classical pieces generated as AI music on the internet, as well as ‘butter or margarine’ tests between machine and human created poetry.

The fact Google is getting into the creative arts business in a serious way, sharing its secrets with developers, means progress will be quickly. Of course, some would question whether this is a good idea. Do we need trillions of new Beatles-like songs?

Well, maybe the Beatles case is the exception. How about a virtually inexhaustible supply of foul-mouthed rap music: now you’re talking about a serious avalanche of drivel. How many different ways are there to rhyme with “pluck” and “switch”?

The 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, complained that the number of musical expression was finite. Technically, he may have been right, but I’m relieved to note that, in the couple of centuries that followed the proclamation by Mill, the finite limit of musical expression is nowhere in sight, with the notable exception of contemporary country and western music.

Replicating existing creations is just the beginning. Once the computer teaches itself to recognize and distinguish a Beatles tune and rap music, there is no stopping it. It can create music that is a hybrid of the two. It can create an instrument that sounds like both a banjo and a set of bagpipes. Something still worse, there are immense opportunities for an AI musical Dr. Strangelove.

Some can’t wait for the onslaught of AI music. David Cope, a retired professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and pioneer in computer-generated music says, “The computer is just a really, really high class shovel. I love this new stuff and want it to come fast enough so I’m not dead when it happens.”

Commentators say that film music, music used to enhance visual effects, will serve as a good testing ground for the development of AI music. You can see a respectable argument that human music creators don’t have to lay down and die just because AI music has arrived; it’s but another creative tool at their disposal.

Who or what is credited for new Beatles-like songs?

I prefer to see a few storm clouds darkening the otherwise sunny horizon. If the computer can generate trillions of Beatles-like songs in an instant, where does that leave the starving composer? How does he justify his devotion to his craft? Why bother struggling to create when a computer can come up with substantially the same outcome almost effortlessly? Will Philistines now have the arguments they need to tell creative types, for the last time, to ‘grow up and get a job’?

Perhaps jobs will open up in sorting through the avalanche of drivel to find the few jewels that are no doubt in there somewhere. Perhaps it will be necessary to develop an accreditation programme, so that just as you can get your honey ‘certified organic’ by an independent agency, you will be able to get can get your music ‘certified AI free.’ It’s similar to confectionery and peanuts, it might be necessary to add warnings that compositions ‘may have come into contact’ with AI.

Just think of the copyright complications. Do we credit a new Beatles-like song to Lennon & McCartney? Does AlphaBetaMagenta Network 3.7 get credit or do its human operators. Are some messy combinations of these possibilities likely? I see lawyers getting richer off this one.

The Beatles will live on.

Maybe the hope for civilization lies in the very fact that an avalanche of drivel will arrive. People will more quickly tire of rap music as well as contemporary country and western music. These genres will die a richly deserved speedier death. The Beatles, of course, will live on regardless.


Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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