Google has launched a project to use artificial intelligence to create compelling art and music, offering a reminder of how technology is rapidly changing what it means to be a musician, and what makes us distinctly human.
Google's Project Magenta, announced this month, aims to push the state of the art in machine intelligence that's used to generate music and art.
"We don't know what artists and musicians will do with these new tools, but we're excited to find out," said Douglas Eck, the project's leader in a blog post. "Daguerre and later Eastman didn't imagine what Annie Liebovitz or Richard Avalon would accomplish in photography. Surely Rickenbacker and Gibson didn't have Jimi Hendrix or St. Vincent in mind."
Google has already released a song demonstrating the technology. The song was created with a neural network -- a computer system loosely modeled on the human brain -- which was fed recordings of a lot of songs. With exposure to tons of examples, the neural network soon begins to realize which note should come next in a sequence. Eventually the neural network learns enough to generate entire songs of its own.
The project has just begun so the only available tools now are for musicians with machine learning expertise. Google hopes to produce -- along with contributors from outside Google -- more tools that will be useful to a broad group, including artists with minimal technical expertise.
Efforts to use computers to make music stretch back decades. But experts say what's unique here is the extent of Google's computing power and its decision to share its tools with everyone, which may accelerate innovation.
"It's a potential game-changer because so many academics and developers in companies can get their hands on this library and can start to create songs and see what they can do," said Gil Weinberg, the director of Georgia Tech's center for music technology.
David Cope, a retired professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and pioneer in computer generated music, believes it's inevitable that one day the best composers will use artificial intelligence to aid their work.
"It's going to rampage through the film music industry," Cope said. "It's going to happen just as cars happened and we didn't have the horse and buggy anymore." He's confident in this given the exponential growth of computing power, which for decades has doubled about every two years.
With digital tools improving so quickly, it's become difficult for musicians to stay on the cutting edge while also mastering their instrument of choice.
"The violinist uses the same instrument for a whole career potentially, and they develop the kind of virtuosity on that instrument because they have that intimate relationship with it day after day for years and years," said Peter Swendsen, an Oberlin professor of computer music and digital arts. "Software comes and goes in weeks sometimes."
Amper Music is a new start-up that like Google is interested in harnessing the latest software to create music. Amper uses artificial intelligence to create original songs that match the emotions a video producer wants to convey in their work. Creating the music takes only seconds.
"If you take the sum of everything that has affected music historically and add them together, in 20 or 30 years I think you'd look back and say wow, music AI rivals all of that," said its co-founder, Drew Silverstein.
For now, the potential of music made with artificial intelligence is still largely unrealized. Silverstein is only beginning to tap the entertainment market in Los Angeles. The song Google's Magenta project released this week demonstrates what it's currently capable of, but also how much work lies ahead.
"It is indeed very basic," said Swendsen, the Oberlin professor, after listening to the song. "That's not to say that the system they are using doesn't hold lots of promise or isn't working on a much deeper level than a simple random generator."
The emerging power of this technology is also a wake-up call for what makes us really human.
"A lot of the uniqueness that we like to ascribe to ourselves becomes threatened, " said George Lewis, a professor of American music at Columbia University. "People have to get the idea out of their head that music comes from great individuals. It doesn't; it comes from communities, it comes from societies. It develops over many years, and computers become a part of societies."
As machines have become more a part of our lives, we can count on them to share in the artistic process. For the 75-year-old Cope, this is a great thing, and nothing to be afraid of.
"The computer is just a really, really high-class shovel," Cope said. "I love this new stuff and want it to come fast enough so I'm not dead when it happens."