Could a computer write a song?
No. Next question. Oh, all right then, let’s think about it a bit more. After all, AI is advancing all the time. Surely if a computer can drive a car then it can write a song. There are already examples of computer-generated art and literature. Well, for a start, I for one won’t be getting in a driverless car any time soon. Even my ‘state-of-the-art’ MacBook Pro goes all screwy on me and hangs once in a while. I don’t want to be inside a car travelling at 70mph on the motorway that is being controlled completely by a box of electronics that is capable of throwing a hissy fit at any moment and really couldn’t give a chocolate disk drive about the safety of its human passengers anyway. As for the art and literature, it’s pretty rubbish if we’re honest.
Music though? There’s only seven notes for god’s sake, how hard can it be? I mean, if Deep Blue can beat Gary Kasparov at chess…. The thing is, Deep Blue won by sheer brute force. It could analyse millions of potential moves and calculate the probability of which of them would give it the best chance of victory. No human could ever hope to match such calculating power. But that is all it was – programmed algorithms working at high speed to process masses of data. It wasn’t thinking. It never out-thought or outwitted Kasparov. It simply possessed a skill that gave it an unfair advantage. Furthermore, Kasparov’s mental faculties were disturbed by the performance of the computer whereas Deep Blue remained unhindered by emotion and applied nothing but pure logic to its task.
Therein lies the crux of this matter. Emotion. Technically, yes, a computer could write a song. You could program it with the rules of music and it could hammer away at all the permutations of notes until something resembling a tune popped out. But that is only half the story. Could it add the lyrics? Again, AI could potentially accomplish such a task. It could trawl through all the songs of Dylan, Springsteen, Young, Bacharach etc. and try to analyse them in its own logical way. I’d actually like to see the results of that; could be a lot of fun. I doubt if it would be very good though.
Songs are uniquely human things. They are born of the way we as people experience the world – happiness, joy, love, pain, sorrow, loss, anger, rage, humiliation, desperation. We feel such a wide range of emotions. We can look outside the window and be moved by a cloud formation or the last leaf clinging on to the branch of a tree. It is impossible for a machine to ever see the world the way we do. Which means it can never write a song the way we do. How can a computer capture the feeling of longing, unrequited love, loneliness. How can it know the feeling of loving someone so much it hurts? Our feelings can be affected by hormonal changes or chemical reactions – these are things that the computer can have no concept of either. And I haven’t even felt the need to bring humour into the equation. Except, I just did. But you get the point. If the day ever comes that a computer can write a song that truly moves us then we are all doomed and I can only hope that by that point we have learned how to clone Arnie.