Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ChordEase and cybernetics

Collaboration between computers and people is the essence of the ChordEase project. The idea is to create a cybernetic organism, in which a performer cooperates with a machine in order to acquire new degrees of freedom that would otherwise be inaccessible. In this narrow sense, a person driving a car also constitutes a cybernetic organism. The car and the person cooperate to achieve a new degree of freedom, i.e. the person can now move around at 60 MPH. All tools have an element of cybernetics, but especially tools that embed information, control systems, sensors, feedback etc. By enabling a person to extend his or her power, tools create a new more powerful organism, a kind of meta-human or cyborg. So in the same way that a person using a portable vacuum becomes a vacuuming cyborg, a person using ChordEase becomes an improvising cyborg.

ChordEase is actually a very specific cybernetic experiment, organized around a simple hypothesis, which is that computers excel at rapid calculations, whereas people excel at rhythm, feel, and aesthetics. Rapid music theory calculations are a crucial component of improvising, and they're exactly the type of rule-based deterministic work that computers are optimized for. So the work of improvising should ideally be divided up between the person and the machine in such a way as to maximize the capabilities of each. The computer handles the brute-force music theory calculations, and the person handles everything else. In particular the person should avoid delegating anything related to rhythm and feel, because these qualities are fundamentally cultural and biological, and therefore very difficult to reduce to simple rules that a computer can follow. Rhythm originates in aspects of our nervous system that we share in common with most other animals, and is therefore inextricably entwined with our most basic drives, such as predation and procreation.

More generally it could be argued that machines will never make truly convincing aesthetic choices autonomously, simply because machines don't suffer, but let's leave that for next time...

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