Whose Future Is It?

Compressorhead, the all-robot band that plays hits by AC/DC, Motorhead, and The Ramones, represents another step toward a technological future in which machines continue to perform tasks as well as (or better than?) humans.  Many a techno-utopian  envisions a world in which human labor, including creative and performing arts no longer represents economic or social value.  Naturally, the prospect of a robot that can unfailingly impersonate virtuoso musicians leads to the inevitable assumption that this technology will eventually converge with Artificial Intelligence and produce a robot that can compose as well as perform.  This then raises the philosophical question about the present and future role of the artist or performer in society.  After all, what is the experiential difference between listening to two identical-sounding guitar solos played either by man or machine?  Nothing except of course the entire purpose of art — and just maybe the entire purpose of living.

Much of the discussion about our technological future is predicated on the central theme as to how much autonomy we want to cede to our machines?  While it’s reasonable to accept that a doctor-supervised robot can perform a delicate surgical technique without the human fallibility that causes hands to shake, current research into the use of IBM’s Watson in the work of diagnosis and prognosis begs the question as to what the human doctors of the future might do.  Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch just launched a campaign against the use of autonomous weapons capable of making battlefield decisions to kill a human target. And as Google works with other technologists to develop the driverless car, I have my own doubts about the prospects of its reliability given the rate of failure of ordinary MP3 players. These and other stories, of course, imply a progression toward the technological singularity, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that we might cross that event horizon without making a conscious, collective choice to do so.

It’s true that we mortals are imperfect, born of imperfection itself by the miracle of chance, composed of detritus from exploded stars.  We are finite, fallible, and fragile; but through experiencing one form of expression or another, we seek exaltation, we connect to one another, and we continually redefine what it means to be human for as long as we’re here. I believe this is why it’s exciting to watch an Olympic athlete perform a feat impossible for most of us but still achievable by a being who is one of us.  If we could not sense the fragility of our own joints or know the blunt, unforgiving nature of gravity, the flight of the figure skater would be a mundane exercise in high-school physics. It may be true that the capacity to build a machine that might replicate the subtle and complex motions of a skater is a human triumph in itself, but the ultimate value of such an endeavor must be something other than the android athlete. Once the novelty of the shiny object wears off, we will be no more excited to watch this object do a quadruple Lutz than to watch a forklift load a truck.  So it is with art.

Art absent the human hand serves no particular purpose.  If this were not the case, the world wouldn’t need Rostropovich and Yo Yo Ma, let alone the range of compositions for cello that come from a diversity of human imperfections. While many popular works, particularly in film and music, are so formulaic, they could arguably be the products of an algorithm, even these works often contain within them component features of extraordinary human creativity (e.g. great design in an otherwise lame movie) and so remain safely on this side of the event horizon.  The future, however, in which the robot wakes to compose and then perform its own songs is a tipping point when art becomes the expression of the robot condition.  Thus do our machines become our masters as we see in so many sci-fi, cautionary tales.

I remember a radio interview with Pete Townsend at least 15 years ago, in which he described breaking his hand and said that he would likely never be able to play with the speed and agility he once had.  And I suppose, with a few keystrokes, the lead guitarist of Compresorhead, Fingers, can be programed to reproduce Townsend’s intro to “Pinball Wizard” just as Townsend played it as a young man.  Hell, Fingers could even be programmed to smash its guitar at the end of the song, creating a bit of android satire.  Of course, what Fingers doesn’t have is a grandmother who shouted at him as a teenager to stop playing that terrible rock-and-roll and so inspired the first smashing of his first guitar.  And in this act is a glimpse into the significance of the cultural revolution in the U.K., where a generation of fatherless kids grew up in the gray rubble left by WWII and burst forth in a profusion of color and sound, themes that reverberate throughout nearly all of the music of The Who.  It isn’t just about the data and the mechanics that produce the sounds.

This week Senator Goodlatte announced the start of the months long process to overhaul the copyright laws of the United States, and in his statement, he refers to the ongoing need to update and revise copyright to adapt to changing technologies.  But nowhere does the senator even imply that the basis for intellectual property rights has lost a fraction of value.  It’s safe to say that technology will continue to evolve according to the acceleration predicted by Moore’s Law, but this does not mean that we must inevitably relinquish control to our machines.  Preserving the basis for copyright and intellectual property law is about keeping the human in the human condition.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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