Synthetic Symphonies Part I

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on the average microchip doubles, on average, every two years...

Synthetic Symphonies (Part I)

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on the average microchip doubles, on average, every two years.

This has long been used as a shorthand example of how human technology seems to progress exponentially, like this:

Many believe that we are currently, as a species, somewhere near the the beginning of that insanely upwards vertical curve.

You only need to consider the the qualitative difference between the average human’s existence in, say, the year 500AD when compared with life in the year 1300AD. 800 years of human history. And sure, Mr 500AD and Mr 1300AD would have seen plenty of political and cultural change - the last gasps of the Roman Empire, the spread of Christianity, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Dark Ages and the Bubonic Plague to list just a few examples.

Technologically, however, both Mr 500AD and Mr 1300AD would be able to navigate each other’s world with relative ease.

Horses, attached to wheels, still pulled people around. Candles and fires still warmed and lit buildings. Medicine was still a strange combination of superstition and herbal guesswork. A ship was still the only way to cross the ocean. You still killed your enemy with a sword, axe or arrow. You still had to eat what your local settlement produced, season by season, before it started to rot (unless you were extraordinarily powerful and wealthy) and most of your kids would still be dead before the age of three or four, so it was important to have as many as possible. Even for Mr 1300AD, the average human life expectancy was just over 31, essentially what it was in 500AD.

Now consider the qualitative difference between the average human existence in the year 1820 and 2020. Mr 1820 would wake up in 2020 to discover aeroplanes, space exploration, Smart TVs, video-calling, satellite navigation, traffic lights, social media, fridges pumping out cubes of ice, private swimming pools and heart-lung transplant surgery. The world would be absolutely incomprehensible.

A quarter the time-lapse, and yet hundreds of times the rate of technological change.*

And this makes sense - better technology begets better technology, and faster. Every new breakthrough in computing, energy production, medicine or astrophysics is the handmaiden to a series of subsequent breakthroughs that couldn’t have happened without it.

This puts us in a remarkable place in human history. Though it’s difficult to appreciate by virtue of the fact we still have ordinary, day-to-day human lives to lead in the meantime, even the last 25 years have seen tectonic shifts in the way all of us live.

I didn’t have access to the internet until the age of 8 or 9, and now there probably isn’t more than a waking hour or two per day when I’m not interacting with it somehow.

I depend on it to socialise, to earn a living, to experience culture, to understand the happenings of the world around me and, most importantly, watch highly filtered women mouth the words to lines from films I haven’t seen. I genuinely struggle to imagine life anymore without it.

If you buy the logic of the paragraphs above, just try and extrapolate another 25 years into the future, and remember that the speed at which technology is going to progress is going to increase, markedly.

It makes the state of the world in 2050 almost impossible to envision.

And yet, of course, in other ways it will be entirely predictable. We’ll still fall victim to petty jealousies, we’ll still feel tired in the mornings, grandparents will still love their grandchildren and New Year’s Eve will still always fail to live up to expectations.

If you’ve noticed the images that accompany these blog posts, you may have also noticed the little rainbow pixels in their bottom right-hand corners.

That’s because these images are produced for me by a machine-learning algorithm called Dall-E2: a system developed by a company called Open-AI.

Five years ago, I would have had to employ a graphic designer. It probably would have taken them days, and cost me hundreds of pounds.

Now, I load up Dall-E 2. I type in a verbal prompt and, within seconds, it generates me various images, in various artistic styles, that it believes satisfies the parameters of my request based on millions of iterations and self-improving feedback loops.

And, I think you’ll agree, they can be pretty good. Striking, even. For me, some of them even capture a sense of what I thought about a subject that I didn't even know I thought before I saw them. Which sounds awfully close to a definition of what good art might do.

The textual equivalent is a piece of software called Chat GPT (also a product of the Open-AI system). You may have heard of it recently in the news.

You can ask it questions and it will, pulling concepts and verbal constructions from the corpus of human knowledge that currently exists online, answer you in thoughtful ways.

A moment ago, I asked Chat GPT:

Rob: “How do you think artificial intelligence will affect the composition of music in the future?”

It told me this:

Chat GPT: Artificial intelligence has the potential to greatly impact the composition of music in the future. AI algorithms can analyze vast amounts of musical data and generate new compositions based on that information, leading to the creation of unique and diverse musical styles. Additionally, AI can be trained to mimic the styles of specific musicians or composers, potentially leading to the creation of new music in their style.

However, it's worth noting that the use of AI in music composition is still a developing field, and there is still much to be explored in terms of its potential applications and limitations. Ultimately, the impact of AI on the composition of music will likely depend on how it is used by musicians, composers, and producers, and whether it is viewed as a tool to enhance the creative process or as a replacement for human creativity.

This answer makes a lot of sense to me. Music, it could be argued, is a fairly closed system - especially pop music (as we currently know it, anyway…).

Most songs that people enjoy are written in specific keys.

Within that key there are limited number of notes and chords that will sound pleasing to the human ear. Of course, like moves on a chess board, there are effectively endless combinations. We aren't ever going to run out, in any technical sense.

However, a machine that is able to trial and error billions of combinations of these notes and chords per minute is bound, like an infinite cage of monkeys smashing on their infinite typewriters, to come up with something decent sooner or later.

I'm going to delve deeper into this idea next week, but, for now, let's head back to Chat GPT to round things up:

Rob: I'm writing a blog post about the relationship between music and technology. I want it to be fun and entertaining. What do you think the best way to sign off might be?

Chat GPT: To sign off on a fun and entertaining blog post about the relationship between music and technology, you could try a playful or lighthearted conclusion. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. "Till the next beat drops, stay groovy!"
  2. "Rock on, tech lovers!"
  3. "Here's to a future filled with musical innovation and creativity!"
  4. "Keep the music and technology vibes flowing!"
  5. "Until our next musical tech adventure, peace out!"

Choose the one that fits best with your writing style and the tone of your post. Good luck with your writing!

At least I can probably still manage a better sign-off than any of those.

But the clock is most certainly ticking.

More to come on this subject next week.

Keep dreaming,


* One of the best things I have ever read on the topic of artificial intelligence is Tim Urban’s legendary series of posts on the subject on his website I highly recommend them for anyone interested. You’ll notice that I have been generously borrowing from many of his arguments here, as well as his hand-drawn graph.

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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