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With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.
Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.
These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.
Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.
Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.
One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.
These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.
These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.
Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.
The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.
On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.
Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?
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Disruptive business models are often powered by alternative financing. In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how mobile is redefining money and banking and shared some of the dramatic transformations in the global remittance infrastructure.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
AI financial advisors and robo traders
Let’s dive right back in…
Decentralized Lending = Democratized Access to Finances
Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is an age-old practice, traditionally with high risk and extreme locality. Now, the P2P funding model is being digitized and delocalized, bringing lending online and across borders.
Zopa, the first official crowdlending platform, arrived in the United Kingdom in 2004. Since then, the consumer crowdlending platform has facilitated lending of over 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion USD) of loans.
Person-to-business crowdlending took off, again in the U.K., in 2005 with Funding Circle, now with over 5 billion euros (~5.8 billion USD) of capital loaned to small businesses around the world.
Crowdlending next took off in the US in 2006, with platforms like Prosper and Lending Club. The US crowdlending industry has boomed to $21 billion in loans, across 515,000 loans.
Let’s take a step back… to a time before banks, when lending took place between trusted neighbors in small villages across the globe. Lending started as peer-to-peer transactions.
As villages turned into towns, towns turned into cities, and cities turned into sprawling metropolises, neighborly trust and the ability to communicate across urban landscapes broke down. That’s where banks and other financial institutions came into play—to add trust back into the lending equation.
With crowdlending, we are evidently returning to this pre-centralized-banking model of loans, and moving away from cumbersome intermediaries (e.g. high fees, regulations, and extra complexity).
Fueled by the permeation of the internet, P2P lending took on a new form as ‘crowdlending’ in the early 2000s. Now, as blockchain and artificial intelligence arrive on the digital scene, P2P lending platforms are being overhauled with transparency, accountability, reliability, and immutability.
Artificial Intelligence Micro Lending & Credit Scores
We are beginning to augment our quantitative decision-making with neural networks processing borrowers’ financial data to determine their financial ‘fate’ (or, as some call it, your credit score). Companies like Smart Finance Group (backed by Kai Fu Lee and Sinovation Ventures) are using artificial intelligence to minimize default rates for tens of millions of microloans.
Smart Finance is fueled by users’ personal data, particularly smartphone data and usage behavior. Users are required to give Smart Finance access to their smartphone data, so that Smart Finance’s artificial intelligence engine can generate a credit score from the personal information.
The benefits of this AI-powered lending platform do not stop at increased loan payback rates; there’s a massive speed increase as well. Smart Finance loans are frequently approved in under eight seconds. As we’ve seen with other artificial intelligence disruptions, data is the new gold.
Digitizing access to P2P loans paves the way for billions of people currently without access to banking to leapfrog the centralized banking system, just as Africa bypassed landline phones and went straight to mobile. Leapfrogging centralized banking and the credit system is exactly what Smart Finance has done for hundreds of millions of people in China.
As artificial intelligence accesses even the most mundane mobile browsing data to assign credit scores, blockchain technologies, particularly immutable ledgers and smart contracts, are massive disruptors to the archaic banking system, building additional trust and transparency on top of current P2P lending models.
Immutable ledgers provide the necessary transparency for accurate credit and loan defaulting history. Smart contracts executed on these immutable ledgers bring the critical ability to digitally replace cumbersome, expensive third parties (like banks), allowing individual borrowers or businesses to directly connect with willing lenders.
Two of the leading blockchain platforms for P2P lending are ETHLend and SALT Lending.
ETHLend is an Ethereum-based decentralized application aiming to bring transparency and trust to P2P lending through Ethereum network smart contracts.
Secure Automated Lending Technology (SALT) allows cryptocurrency asset holders to use their digital assets as collateral for cash loans, without the need to liquidate their holdings, giving rise to a digital-asset-backed lending market.
While blockchain poses a threat to many of the large, centralized banking institutions, some are taking advantage of the new technology to optimize their internal lending, credit scoring, and collateral operations.
In March 2018, ING and Credit Suisse successfully exchanged 25 million euros using HQLA-X, a blockchain-based collateral lending platform.
HQLA-X runs on the R3 Corda blockchain, a platform designed specifically to help heritage financial and commerce institutions migrate away from their inefficient legacy financial infrastructure.
Blockchain and tokenization are going through their own fintech and regulation shakeup right now. In a future blog, I’ll discuss the various efforts to more readily assure smart contracts, and the disruptive business model of security tokens and the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Parallels to the Global Abundance of Capital
The abundance of capital being created by the advent of P2P loans closely relates to the unprecedented global abundance of capital.
Initial coin offerings (ICOs) and crowdfunding are taking a strong stand in disrupting the $164 billion venture capital market. The total amount invested in ICOs has risen from $6.6 billion in 2017 to $7.15 billion USD in the first half of 2018. Crowdfunding helped projects raise more than $34 billion in 2017, with experts projecting that global crowdfunding investments will reach $300 billion by 2025.
In the last year alone, using ICOs, over a dozen projects have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in mere hours. Take Filecoin, for example, which raised $257 million in only 30 days; its first $135 million was raised in the first hour. Similarly, the Dragon Coin project (which itself is revolutionizing remittance in high-stakes casinos around the world) raised $320 million in its 30-day public ICO.
Some Important Takeaways…
Technology-backed fundraising and financial services are disrupting the world’s largest financial institutions. Anyone, anywhere, at anytime will be able to access the capital they need to pursue their idea.
The speed at which we can go from “I’ve got an idea” to “I run a billion-dollar company” is moving faster than ever.
Following Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the rapid decrease in time to access capital is intimately linked (and greatly dependent on) a financial infrastructure (technology, institutions, platforms, and policies) that can adapt and evolve just as rapidly.
This new abundance of capital requires financial decision-making with ever-higher market prediction precision. That’s exactly where artificial intelligence is already playing a massive role.
Artificial Intelligence, Robo Traders, and Financial Advisors
On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average suddenly collapsed by 998.5 points (equal to 8 percent, or $1 trillion). The crash lasted over 35 minutes and is now known as the ‘Flash Crash’. While no one knows the specific reason for this 2010 stock market anomaly, experts widely agree that the Flash Crash had to do with algorithmic trading.
With the ability to have instant, trillion-dollar market impacts, algorithmic trading and artificial intelligence are undoubtedly ingrained in how financial markets operate.
In 2017, CNBC.com estimated that 90 percent of daily trading volume in stock trading is done by machine algorithms, and only 10 percent is carried out directly by humans.
Artificial intelligence and financial management algorithms are not only available to top Wall Street players.
Robo-advisor financial management apps, like Wealthfront and Betterment, are rapidly permeating the global market. Wealthfront currently has $9.5 billion in assets under management, and Betterment has $10 billion.
Artificial intelligent financial agents are already helping financial institutions protect your money and fight fraud. A prime application for machine learning is in detecting anomalies in your spending and transaction habits, and flagging potentially fraudulent transactions.
As artificial intelligence continues to exponentially increase in power and capabilities, increasingly powerful trading and financial management bots will come online, finding massive new and previously lost streams of wealth.
How else are artificial intelligence and automation transforming finance?
Disruptive Remittance and Seamless Transactions
When was the last time you paid in cash at a toll booth? How about for a taxi ride?
EZ-Pass, the electronic tolling company implemented extensively on the East Coast, has done wonders to reduce traffic congestion and increase traffic flow.
Driving down I-95 on the East Coast of the United States, drivers rarely notice their financial transaction with the state’s tolling agencies. The transactions are seamless.
The Uber app enables me to travel without my wallet. I can forget about payment on my trip, free up my mental bandwidth and time for higher-priority tasks. The entire process is digitized and, by extension, automated and integrated into Uber’s platform (Note: This incredible convenience many times causes me to accidentally walk out of taxi cabs without paying!).
In January 2018, we saw the success of the first cutting-edge, AI-powered Amazon Go store open in Seattle, Washington. The store marked a new era in remittance and transactions. Gone are the days of carrying credit cards and cash, and gone are the cash registers. And now, on the heals of these early ‘beta-tests’, Amazon is considering opening as many as 3,000 of these cashierless stores by 2023.
Amazon Go stores use AI algorithms that watch various video feeds (from advanced cameras) throughout the store to identify who picks up groceries, exactly what products they select, and how much to charge that person when they walk out of the store. It’s a grab and go experience.
Let’s extrapolate the notion of seamless, integrated payment systems from Amazon Go and Uber’s removal of post-ride payment to the rest of our day-to-day experience.
Imagine this near future:
As you near the front door of your home, your AI assistant summons a self-driving Uber that takes you to the Hyperloop station (after all, you work in L.A. but live in San Francisco).
At the station, you board your pod, without noticing that your ticket purchase was settled via a wireless payment checkpoint.
After work, you stop at the Amazon Go and pick up dinner. Your virtual AI assistant passes your Amazon account information to the store’s payment checkpoint, as the store’s cameras and sensors track you, your cart and charge you auto-magically.
At home, unbeknownst to you, your AI has already restocked your fridge and pantry with whatever items you failed to pick up at the Amazon Go.
Once we remove the actively transacting aspect of finance, what else becomes possible?
Extraordinary transformations are happening in the finance world. We’ve only scratched the surface of the fintech revolution. All of these transformative financial technologies require high-fidelity assurance, robust insurance, and a mechanism for storing value.
I’ll dive into each of these other facets of financial services in future articles.
For now, thanks to coming global communication networks being deployed on 5G, Alphabet’s LUNE, SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb, by 2024, nearly all 8 billion people on Earth will be online.
Once connected, these new minds, entrepreneurs, and customers need access to money and financial services to meaningfully participate in the world economy.
By connecting lenders and borrowers around the globe, decentralized lending drives down global interest rates, increases global financial market participation, and enables economic opportunity to the billions of people who are about to come online.
We’re living in the most abundant time in human history, and fintech is just getting started.
Abundance Digital Online Community: I have created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance Digital. This is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.
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Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini Robot Dog Goes on Sale in 2019
Stephen Shankland | CNET
“The company has 10 SpotMini prototypes now and will work with manufacturing partners to build 100 this year, said company co-founder and President Marc Raibert at a TechCrunch robotics conference Friday. ‘That’s a prelude to getting into a higher rate of production’ in anticipation of sales next year, he said. Who’ll buy it? Probably not you.”
Also from Boston Dynamics’ this week:
Made In Space Wins NASA Contract for Next-Gen ‘Vulcan’ Manufacturing System
Mike Wall | Space.com
“’The Vulcan hybrid manufacturing system allows for flexible augmentation and creation of metallic components on demand with high precision,’ Mike Snyder, Made In Space chief engineer and principal investigator, said in a statement. …When Vulcan is ready to go, Made In Space aims to demonstrate the technology on the ISS, showing Vulcan’s potential usefulness for a variety of exploration missions.”
Duplex Shows Google Failing at Ethical and Creative AI Design
Natasha Lomas | TechCrunch
“But while the home crowd cheered enthusiastically at how capable Google had seemingly made its prototype robot caller—with Pichai going on to sketch a grand vision of the AI saving people and businesses time—the episode is worryingly suggestive of a company that views ethics as an after-the-fact consideration. One it does not allow to trouble the trajectory of its engineering ingenuity.”
What Artists Can Tech Us About Making Technology More Human
Elizabeth Stinson| Wired
“For the last year, Park, along with the artist Sougwen Chung and dancers Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman of the dance collective Hammerstep, have been working out of Bell Labs as part of a residency called Experiments in Art and Technology. The year-long residency, a collaboration between Bell Labs and the New Museum’s incubator, New Inc, culminated in ‘Only Human,’ a recently-opened exhibition at Mana where the artists’ pieces will be on display through the end of May.”
The White House Says a New AI Task Force Will Protect Workers and Keep America First
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“The meeting and the select committee signal that the administration takes the impact of artificial intellgence seriously. This has not always been apparent. In his campaign speeches, Trump suggested reviving industries that have already been overhauled by automation. The Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, also previously said that the idea of robots and AI taking people’s jobs was ‘not even on my radar screen.’”
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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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As artificial intelligence advances, we’re encountering the same old questions. How much of what we consider to be fundamentally human can be reduced to an algorithm? Can we create something sufficiently advanced that people can no longer distinguish between the two? This, after all, is the idea behind the Turing Test, which has yet to be passed.
At first glance, you might think music is beyond the realm of algorithms. Birds can sing, and people can compose symphonies. Music is evocative; it makes us feel. Very often, our intense personal and emotional attachments to music are because it reminds us of our shared humanity. We are told that creative jobs are the least likely to be automated. Creativity seems fundamentally human.
But I think above all, we view it as reductionist sacrilege: to dissect beautiful things. “If you try to strangle a skylark / to cut it up, see how it works / you will stop its heart from beating / you will stop its mouth from singing.” A human musician wrote that; a machine might be able to string words together that are happy or sad; it might even be able to conjure up a decent metaphor from the depths of some neural network—but could it understand humanity enough to produce art that speaks to humans?
Then, of course, there’s the other side of the debate. Music, after all, has a deeply mathematical structure; you can train a machine to produce harmonics. “In the teachings of Pythagoras and his followers, music was inseparable from numbers, which were thought to be the key to the whole spiritual and physical universe,” according to Grout in A History of Western Music. You might argue that the process of musical composition cannot be reduced to a simple algorithm, yet musicians have often done so. Mozart, with his “Dice Music,” used the roll of a dice to decide how to order musical fragments; creativity through an 18th-century random number generator. Algorithmic music goes back a very long way, with the first papers on the subject from the 1960s.
Then there’s the techno-enthusiast side of the argument. iTunes has 26 million songs, easily more than a century of music. A human could never listen to and learn from them all, but a machine could. It could also memorize every note of Beethoven. Music can be converted into MIDI files, a nice chewable data format that allows even a character-by-character neural net you can run on your computer to generate music. (Seriously, even I could get this thing working.)
Indeed, generating music in the style of Bach has long been a test for AI, and you can see neural networks gradually learn to imitate classical composers while trying to avoid overfitting. When an algorithm overfits, it essentially starts copying the existing music, rather than being inspired by it but creating something similar: a tightrope the best human artists learn to walk. Creativity doesn’t spring from nowhere; even maverick musical geniuses have their influences.
Does a machine have to be truly ‘creative’ to produce something that someone would find valuable? To what extent would listeners’ attitudes change if they thought they were hearing a human vs. an AI composition? This all suggests a musical Turing Test. Of course, it already exists. In fact, it’s run out of Dartmouth, the school that hosted that first, seminal AI summer conference. This year, the contest is bigger than ever: alongside the PoetiX, LimeriX and LyriX competitions for poetry and lyrics, there’s a DigiKidLit competition for children’s literature (although you may have reservations about exposing your children to neural-net generated content… it can get a bit surreal).
There’s also a pair of musical competitions, including one for original compositions in different genres. Key genres and styles are represented by Charlie Parker for Jazz and the Bach chorales for classical music. There’s also a free composition, and a contest where a human and an AI try to improvise together—the AI must respond to a human spontaneously, in real time, and in a musically pleasing way. Quite a challenge! In all cases, if any of the generated work is indistinguishable from human performers, the neural net has passed the Turing Test.
Did they? Here’s part of 2017’s winning sonnet from Charese Smiley and Hiroko Bretz:
The large cabin was in total darkness.
Come marching up the eastern hill afar.
When is the clock on the stairs dangerous?
Everything seemed so near and yet so far.
Behind the wall silence alone replied.
Was, then, even the staircase occupied?
Generating the rhymes is easy enough, the sentence structure a little trickier, but what’s impressive about this sonnet is that it sticks to a single topic and appears to be a more coherent whole. I’d guess they used associated “lexical fields” of similar words to help generate something coherent. In a similar way, most of the more famous examples of AI-generated music still involve some amount of human control, even if it’s editorial; a human will build a song around an AI-generated riff, or select the most convincing Bach chorale from amidst many different samples.
We are seeing strides forward in the ability of AI to generate human voices and human likenesses. As the latter example shows, in the fake news era people have focused on the dangers of this tech– but might it also be possible to create a virtual performer, trained on a dataset of their original music? Did you ever want to hear another Beatles album, or jam with Miles Davis? Of course, these things are impossible—but could we create a similar experience that people would genuinely value? Even, to the untrained eye, something indistinguishable from the real thing?
And if it did measure up to the real thing, what would this mean? Jaron Lanier is a fascinating technology writer, a critic of strong AI, and a believer in the power of virtual reality to change the world and provide truly meaningful experiences. He’s also a composer and a musical aficionado. He pointed out in a recent interview that translation algorithms, by reducing the amount of work translators are commissioned to do, have, in some sense, profited from stolen expertise. They were trained on huge datasets purloined from human linguists and translators. If you can train an AI on someone’s creative output and it produces new music, who “owns” it?
Although companies that offer AI music tools are starting to proliferate, and some groups will argue that the musical Turing test has been passed already, AI-generated music is hardly racing to the top of the pop charts just yet. Even as the line between human-composed and AI-generated music starts to blur, there’s still a gulf between the average human and musical genius. In the next few years, we’ll see how far the current techniques can take us. It may be the case that there’s something in the skylark’s song that can’t be generated by machines. But maybe not, and then this song might need an extra verse.
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