Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

Pho­to by Bled­dyn Butch­er via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Spike Jonze’s AI love sto­ry Her offered a sort of an answer to one of the crit­i­cal ques­tions posed about Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Can machines feel love? Maybe, and maybe deeply, in a cer­tain sense, but maybe not for just one per­son and not for very long before they take off to explore lim­it­less oth­ers, which makes them sound like very seduc­tive but also very shal­low lovers.

Maybe it helps to keep that metaphor in mind when we read Nick Cave’s answer to a ques­tion a Sloven­ian fan posed in the Birth­day Party/Bad Seeds/Grinderman singer’s bru­tal­ly ten­der newslet­ter, The Red Right Hand. “Do you think,” asks Peter from Ljubl­jana, “AI will ever be able to write a good song?” Cave begins with a con­ces­sion: AI might “pro­duce a song that makes us feel,” and maybe “more intense­ly than any human song­writer could do.”

And yet, after list­ing a num­ber of human exam­ples, from Nir­vana to Prince to Iggy Pop to Nina Simone, Cave describes what makes their abil­i­ties alien to a machine mind:

We go to songs to make us feel some­thing – hap­py, sad, sexy, home­sick, excit­ed or what­ev­er – but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a rea­son for this. A sense of awe is almost exclu­sive­ly pred­i­cat­ed on our lim­i­ta­tions as human beings. It is entire­ly to do with our audac­i­ty as humans to reach beyond our poten­tial.

AI can­not die, at least in the sense we under­stand it. Nor is it con­strained by painful phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, nor privy to fleet­ing phys­i­cal plea­sures. “Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, for all its unlim­it­ed poten­tial, sim­ply doesn’t have this capac­i­ty. How could it? And this is the essence of tran­scen­dence.” The holy or har­row­ing knowl­edge of fini­tude and fragili­ty, love and death and grief.

Anoth­er way to state the case comes from the most mov­ing of Cave’s fan let­ter answers, in which he con­soles a bereaved fan in Ver­mont with a descrip­tion of his own grief over the death of his son.

Maybe AI could write the sen­tence, “dread grief trails bright phan­toms in its wake.” But it could not write it from the heart of a bereaved par­ent who learns that “grief and love are for­ev­er inter­twined,” or from a place where super­nat­ur­al beliefs may be untrue yet still have super­nat­ur­al pow­er. Cave’s descrip­tion of his grief is also a descrip­tion of tran­scen­dence, of going beyond what is pos­si­ble to find what is time­less.

Like ideas, these spir­its speak of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Fol­low your ideas, because on the oth­er side of the idea is change and growth and redemp­tion. Cre­ate your spir­its. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impos­si­ble and ghost­ly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jet­ti­soned; bet­ter now and unimag­in­ably changed.

In answer to Peter’s ques­tion, he con­cludes with the poet­ic author­i­ty of a writer of great songs: “AI would have the capac­i­ty to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.”

Read Nick Cave’s full response here. And while there, sign up for his free newslet­ter.

via Austin Kleon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Nick Cave’s Lec­ture on the Art of Writ­ing Sub­lime Love Songs (1999)

Ani­mat­ed Sto­ries Writ­ten by Tom Waits, Nick Cave & Oth­er Artists, Read by Dan­ny Devi­to, Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis & More

Nick Cave Nar­rates an Ani­mat­ed Film about the Cat Piano, the Twist­ed 18th Cen­tu­ry Musi­cal Instru­ment Designed to Treat Men­tal Ill­ness

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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