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Why AI? Probing the collective unconscious
AI seems to live in the part of my mind that deals with animals and spirits rather than objects and machines.
Last month I shared my AI sound piece Agency of Chaos, Unmoved, recorded during a live performance in Montreal. Now back in Glasgow, I’m currently organising a performance of it here - details soon.
After listening to the recording, my friend Dom Aversano posed a question.
With the use of the 'AI', I have a question, why? I want to keep that question open so won't elaborate, but I just want to understand better what it signifies in the compositional process.
Dom is sceptical of AI hype - he even uses scarequotes around ‘AI’. I’m sympathetic. Hype certainly seems to inspire a lot of meaningless art. This can make it harder to find space for the slow-burning artistic research I’ve been undertaking. So it’s prompted me to contemplate what drew me here.
The simple answer is that the possibilities AI brings into the creative process are too exciting to ignore. But Agency of Chaos, Unmoved doesn’t just use AI. It’s all about AI.
The type of AI being used by me and pretty much everyone else right now is a branch of AI called Machine Learning – a clunky term that hides quite how exciting a shift it represents. Instead of explicitly coding what a program does, we allow its behaviour to emerge through training it on some kind of data.
Machine Learning systems work unreasonably well (literally). But they are ‘black box’ systems in that their process doesn’t break down into understandable chunks. A human cannot fully comprehend how they work. This has irked many – including computer scientists – because it sidelines many of the beautiful theories we have formed about our world. The creators of ChatGPT didn’t even need to know the difference between a noun and a verb to create a machine that can speak English. I, too, enjoy intellectual theories about the world but I think the belief that everything can be reduced into comprehensible chunks is a grand delusion of the modern age. This makes Machine Learning’s black box nature more exciting than irksome to me.
So, officially, Machine Learning is the pragmatic branch of AI behind all these tricks. But on an emotional level, the terms Machine Learning and AI capture two concurrent yet distinct experiences I have with the technology. Machine Learning speaks of good engineering that disappears into the background, unnoticed until it fails to work. But AI is an alchemical technology very much in the foreground. It feels like a mystical force with capabilities we can’t quite be sure of, a kind of magic. My interactions with AI sometimes seem to occupy the part of my mind that deals with people, animals and spirits rather than tools, objects and machines.
AI systems like ChatGPT and Midjourney are producing results which feel human. They display a degree of creativity that is a generational leap from what we had a few years ago. They may borrow shamelessly from whatever data they’re trained on but the way they borrow imparts an uncanny feeling of a human-like understanding.
Then there is the potential for emergent agency. Language models like ChatGPT have the capability to construct goals, form plans and do things on the internet - in principle. I’ve not yet seen a successful example myself, and so there is a sense of mystery as to what abilities still lie latent. This is where I feel the sci-fi vision of AI running through the 20th century. I need more than the shallow certainties of hype and doom to make sense of them.
Agency of Chaos, Unmoved is my journey into this collective unconscious. How does it feel to hear that voice, in its struggle to emerge, questioning what our experiences of consciousness tells us of the universe?
In practice, I found the creation of the work a similar process to composing generative music. In a generative work, the composer creates a system that autonomously generates a set of musical outcomes. For example, consider the everyday set of windchimes. There may be a lot of craftsmanship put into each chime but the final music is undetermined, emerging only when the human-designed system meets the randomness of the wind. Listening to windchimes, I can hear the human hand in the exact pitch and timbre of each chime, and I can hear nature in the energy of the wind, but I can’t predict the sequence or rhythm. Control is relinquished to an unpredictable force.
The black box AI model adds a new unpredictable force. I can’t fully understand it but I can poke and prod and get a feel for it. I craft a set of sounds to train it on, I manipulate parts of it, and I see what happens. I can’t predict the sounds that emerge from it during the performance but I can still hear within them my preparations, my actions on stage, and of course the characteristic artefacts of the AI model itself.
Buftea, 24 July 2023