If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend?

I finished reading Radical Technologies today. Towards the end within a chapter talking about Artificial Intelligence, Greenfield writes on how the greatest works in the world transcend the process of pattern reproduction, which can be recreated by AI:

Everyone will have their own favorite examples of an art that seems as if it must transcend reduction. For me, it’s the vocal phrasing of Nina Simone. When sitting in a quiet hour, listening to all the ache and steel of life in her voice, it’s virtually impossible for me to accept—let alone appreciate, or find tolerable—the notion that everything I hear might be flattened to a series of instructions and executed by machine. I feel much the same way, in vastly different registers, about the cool curves of an Oscar Niemeyer structure, about Ruth Asawa’s sculpture, the all-but-anonymous but nevertheless distinctive hand behind the posters of Atelier Populaire or the final words of James Joyce’s “The Dead”—about every work or act of human craft I’ve ever encountered that sent a silent thrill of recognition, glee and rightness running through me.

However, that could change in a few years’ time — actually, it has happened — with the project called Next Rembrandt. Sponsored by Microsoft and the Dutch bank ING, the project went through the painter’s corpus “to extract the features that make Rembrandt Rembrandt”, and so a 3D-printer painting made of 0s and 1s emerge, posing ethical questions such as: would this obscene act of reanimation pose such disrespect to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn 347 years after his death, what’s with the ING’s corporate speak “Next Rembrandt makes you think about where innovation can take us — what’s next?” and if he is still alive would he consent to his work being replicated in such ways?

But we know by now that such structures can be detected, modeled, emulated and projected with relative ease. Something as seemingly intuitive as a Jackson Pollock canvas yields to an analysis of painterly density, force, and velocity. Similarly, entirely new Bach compositions can be generated, passages of music Bach himself never thought nor heard, simply from a rigorous parametric analysis of the BWV. Nor is it simply the icons of high culture that fall before such techniques. One of the redemptive beauties of the human condition is that just about any domain of endeavor can become an expressive medium in the right hands, and someone working in just about any of them can aspire to the condition of art. Every designer has their go-to moves, every storyteller their signature tropes, and every trial lawyer their preferred patterns of precedent and emphasis. Given only sufficient processing power, though, sufficiently well-trained feature-extraction algorithms, and access to a sufficiently large corpus of example works, abstracting these motifs is not much more than trivial.

A fan posed this question to Nick Cave on his blog on the ascent/descent of music becomes somewhat a computational enterprise in the age of Artificial Intelligence:

Considering human imagination the last piece of wilderness, do you think AI will ever be able to write a good song?

To which he answers with poetic thoughtfulness:

It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel – in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.

But, I don’t feel that when we listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen – a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation – a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation. We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.

What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.

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