Cyborg Music: the ultimate merging of wo/man, art and machine (2022)
Any philosophy that denies creativity to machines is nothing more than a security blanket of romantically sanitised, carefully curated, historically inaccurate, self-indulgently misguided tom foolery thrown up to ward off the possibility that composers and musicians will become unnecessary and irrelevant for the vast majority, if not all, of humanity. It is inevitable that we will enjoy music created by artificial intelligent composers, played on perfectly attuned, artificially intelligent instruments by highly skilled, aesthetically soulful, artificially intelligent machines. We will no longer append the adjective artificial to their intelligence because the machines will be us. The next step after the creation of music machines that are beyond human capacity to play and after the recognition of AI as creative entities that have a distinct place in the social hierarchy, is a merger between human and machine to get the best of both worlds. Rather than an emotional union sanctified by church, state or playwright, I’m talking about a machine augmented by a human component, or a human augmented by an artificial component. I’m talking about cyborgs.
The (sometime) Australian musician and scientist, Manfred Clynes came up with the portmanteau word ‘cyborg’ to refer to a cybernetic organism, a living bio-mechatronic entity that has both organic and artificial body parts. For now, they are hybrids: a human augmented by a machine might well be able to breed with an ordinary human, but the resulting offspring will not inherit the augmentation of its cyborg parent. Therefore, we can safely say that cyborgs, regardless of how intelligent or strong they are, are not part of any of the homo species. Unless of course, our faith in the notion that naming things means understanding them turns out to be the self-delusional indulgence we have long suspected it might be. Cyborgs may yet trample down the barriers between species, just as science fiction has long predicted.
The defining characteristic of a cyborg is that the merging of humans with machines is intended to augment capabilities rather than overcome deficiencies. Remedying physical and/or cognitive dysfunction through artificial means is an aspiration based on the idea that there is an acceptable norm in humanness that every human has an inalienable right to. Putting in a cochlear implant that communicates directly with a human brain is intended to remedy deafness but not make the implantee hear better than any other human being, is not creating a cyborg. Someone with a pacemaker is not a cyborg because it isn’t designed to make the heart better but to ensure it doesn’t stop. The half human and half machine Davros, the leader of the exterminating Daleks who are the perpetual enemies of Doctor Who, isn’t actually a cyborg because none of his artificial parts are markedly better than the biological parts they’ve replaced. His tinny undercarriage may be able to whizz across a level floor at great speed, but it can’t get him up the stairs.
Any cyborg worth its salt should be instantaneously recognisable as being better at one or another task than any human is; there is no point spending six million dollars on artificial legs if they can’t run faster than one-million-dollar legs or the free ones that come with the standard package. Cyborgs are entities with the capacity to do any or all the cognitive, affective, computational and physical functioning better than either humans or machines alone can, and to do it in a way that we (however reluctantly) recognise as being better.
Cyborgs get bad press but is it justified? One of the more persistent arguments against them is that cyborgs are unnatural because they are not made by (a) god. Because that god created humans to be as they are, any messing about with the original blueprint is going against the will of that god. A modern manifestation of that is the refusal by Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions because, as Leviticus 17:14 tells us, “the soul of every sort of flesh is its blood” and the soul belongs to God. As an argument against life-saving medicine, it is not only based on an incorrect understanding of what blood is, but it also misunderstands that the purpose of a blood transfusion is not to change a person in any way but to give them a chance to stay alive.
Not all religions agree with the premise. One exception is the Mormon Transhumanist Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While I am not suggesting that the religion actively promotes the development of cyborgs, it does at least leave the door slightly ajar. MTA defines transhumanism as an ethical use of rapidly developing technology to extend human abilities. It may seem a rather irreligious point of view but bear in mind that the Church subscribes to the tenet that rather than creating it ex nihilo (i.e., from nothing), God organised the universe from matter that was already there. Not believing in Absolute Creationism affords Mormons the possibility that humanity can achieve a god-state through continuous improvement, which in turn allows the belief that anything at hand can be re-purposed in the service of finding the path to apotheosis. Admittedly becoming a cyborg is a somewhat lesser aspiration than becoming a god but the idea of enlisting artificially created augmentation to achieve either state is (more or less) the same.
In general, response to artificial augmentation that exceeds natural human capacity is far from universally positive. Much of the criticism is centred on the proposition that any sort of meddling with the status quo is unnatural and unwarranted. However, when the meddling’s done and dusted, the world generally moves on and something else is enlisted to bear the cross of indignation and contempt for anything that pushes the boundaries of popular taste. In any case, a cyborg sets the bar much higher: its norm is above that of humans. Its norm resides in the Romantic poet Robert Browning’s idea of Heaven: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Most real cyborgs lack the sophistication and comedic value of the fictional ones, but Neil Harbisson’s surgically implanted antenna is quite funny as well as practical. In short, Harbisson is a self-described activist and artist who was unable to see colours, and who, to overcome the deficiency, surgically mounted a sensitive electronic antenna into the back of his skull that curls over his head like a desk lamp. The antenna turns ‘light’ frequencies that he cannot process into ‘sound’ vibrations that he can, allowing him in effect, to ‘hear’ colour. He claims that there is no difference between the software and his brain, or his antenna and any other body part. Whether or not his claims can be substantiated, the fact that his antenna is officially recognised as a legitimate part of him and the assertion that the colours he can ‘hear’ include infrared and ultraviolet, colours that unaugmented humans cannot see or hear, legitimises the claim that he is the first actual cyborg.
Harbisson argues that his implant isn’t as unnatural as one might think. Hearing through bone conduction is something that dolphins can do, and an antenna is something that many insects have. Non-human senses already exist in nature and can be re-purposed to benefit humans. Bone conduction of sound, for example, has already been replicated in the new Bluetooth earphones. His argument is that because these sense receptors are found in nature they are therefore ‘natural’. He ignores the fact these senses are artificially reproduced in an entirely ‘unnatural’ context.
Nonetheless, Harbisson’s augmentation is not without precedent. Technology has been chasing the equivalent of a cochlear implant for vision for decades. The Argus II, for example, is a retinal prosthesis (commonly known as a ‘bionic eye’) that consists of a digital camera mounted on the side of a pair glasses that record images to be transmitted to a computer for image processing which are sent to an implant that is surgically attached to the retina, from where the image is processed neurologically. However, because the Argus II implant consists of 60 electrodes each with a diameter of 200 microns, the seen image created by it will be a lot less clear than that created by normal sight. Therefore, like the bionic ear, the bionic eye is still far from cyborg material.
A different step in the direction of optical augmentation is “the Eyeborg”, a man with a tiny camera fitted as a prosthetic eye inside the ocular cavity. Vision is filmed and stored on an external computer. Despite its name, on its own it is not yet a cyborg: it is simply a camera in an empty eye socket, designed to let the sightless see. But in combination with the emerging brain computer interface (BCI) technology there is the potential to allow the image to be streamed directly to the retina as well as being recorded and broadcast. Not only would hitherto blind recipients be able to see but they would also be able to broadcast what they saw. Whereas such ideas were the stuff of fiction last century, nowadays its advent as a commercial venture would barely raise an eyebrow (except on the implantee, of course).
One of the pertinent points is that for now at least, even when implanted mechanisms enhance capacity beyond the standard limits of human perception, the implantee retains control over the augmentation. For example, Neil Harbisson oversees the augmented ability to hear colour. His digital antenna is not an equal partner in the decision-making processes of what he sees/hears. The augmentation doesn’t tell another part of his body what to do when he hears a colour. For all Harbisson’s claims, he retains control of the augmentation: his antenna doesn’t make decisions independently of him. But the day that it does may not be far off.
Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics researcher who shares the conception of a cyborg as a merged human-artificial system where both have agency in decision making, points out that cyborg ought not to be weighted in favour of the human part. In 2002, Warwick had a receiver/transmitter implanted into the nervous fibres of his body and connected to a computer. Electronic data could flow either way. His wife also had an implant and via the Internet they could communicate by thought. In one part of the experiment Warwick made a remote robotic arm move by thought alone. The ramifications of such experiments are manifold and unpredictable. Linking a human brain to the Internet is a kettle of entirely new fish because it involves not only massive neurological augmentation but also the ceding of human autonomy. Warwick argues that with “a brain which is part human, part machine, a cyborg would have some links to their human background but their view on life, what is possible and what is not, would be very much different from that of a human. The values, morals and ethics of a Cyborg would relate to its own life, what it feels is important and what not”. In other words, cyborg values ought to be developed by cyborgs.
It spawns the question of how much control a cyborg can devolve to the artificial enhancement before he or she becomes a machine rather than a human being. At the other end, if we start with a computer and keep adding humanoid bits and bobs to it, how far do we need to go before the computer is recognised as a living entity? It all seems to still depend on what we who assumes that our decisions are final, recognise as human or machine, a recognition that is mutable and context dependent. Even those who believe in a deity of some kind being in control of the overall design (and therefore the sole arbiter of what is what) have to acknowledge that there is no verifiable reference to cyborgs in any of the various manuals.
In terms of creativity, it raises another interesting question. In a merger between a human and an artificial entity where both have agency in the creative process, will the ego of the human side of the cyborg impede the continuous creativity of the AI, or the “beyond-the-normal” capacities of the robotics? Will the three aspects need to learn to cooperate respectfully? Gil Weinberg of the Robotic Musicianship Group at Georgia Tech is at the forefront of cyborg music. For example, when a drummer by the name of Jason Barnes lost an arm in a workplace accident in 2012, Weinberg built him a robotic prosthesis, driven by electromyography (EMG), which if it were simply a compensatory device would be unremarkable. But Barnes’ new arm provides him with the ability to play rhythms that no unaugmented drummer can possibly play. He explains.
So, for instance, when you play drums normally, you use your wrist and your fingers. And so that’s kind of what we recreated via EMG, so I can flex my muscle and get a loose hit. Or I can flex my muscle in the opposite direction and grip the stick to get a tight hit. Now it also has a second stick, which essentially has a mind of its own. I can create all kinds of different rhythms that aren’t humanly possible. For instance, I can play polyrhythms, so one rhythm on one stick and another rhythm on the other.
Barnes plays with three rather than two sticks, which is beyond standard human capacity, but the most pertinent development is that the third stick is driven by AI and can make its own decisions. Weinberg considers Barnes’ augmentation a “wearable robot” but goes on to describe it as a cyborg. Given that his artificial arm can do what no human arm can do and that it can do it at its own behest rather than directed by the human, it is by definition at least, an accurate assessment.
In his 2020 doctoral thesis, snappily titled Cyborg Music: A Future Musicotechnographic Aesthetic, Thomas Hewitt poses some interesting questions, including to what extent the technological side of a cyborg is critical. It is roughly akin to asking whether cyborgs have a capacity to know beauty and imbue their music with it? Hewitt uses Andy Clark’s conceptualisation of cyborgs as human-technology symbionts: a term that reflects his notion that the relationship between the technological and the human is symbiotic: mutually beneficial but fundamentally independent. Personally, I believe that there is (or will be) a more dynamic interaction between the human corporeality and intelligence and the artificial corporeality and intelligence, with both facets able to contribute independently as well as collaboratively to the music that is being created. Eventually, both Human Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence will have agency in the creative process.
The bugbear with aesthetics is that it requires something to be appreciated and someone to do the appreciating. Appreciation is contextual, fundamentally bound by time and place, and changing whenever it is transported. For example, Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation is generally cited as the start of Free Jazz as a distinct style, distinguishable from its precursor Bebop. Its proponents abandoned the standard structures of jazz not because they lacked technique) but its aesthetic was based on listening and responding with unrestricted freeness. Its newness was part of its aesthetic. But when it is transported out of context (time, place, social environment), that aesthetic changes because it is no longer new, which suggests it is malleable and therefore it can be manipulated not only by changing contexts but also by deliberate and purposeful interference. As Brian Christian points out, human bias is as much inherent in artificial as it is in human intelligence. It is a fine line between predisposition (“I prefer the old”) and prejudice (“I hate the new”).
Lanfranco Aceti eloquently argues that the arts have a tradition of normalising the new and controversial. The gradual sophistication in how cyborgs are imaged, from the Six Million Man of the 1970s via the Terminator in the 1980s to the recurring cyborgs in the movie franchises Star Trek and Star Wars, has created a new cyborg aesthetic that is increasingly more palatable to the general public. That development illustrates his notion that in regard to the appearance of augmenting prosthetics “the answer to visibility versus invisibility of the mechanical may rest more in the realm of future cyborg fashions”. Aceti argues that acceptance of cyborgs will depend on how they are portrayed in popular culture and in that regard, things are changing.
For example, according to her website, Laurann Dohner’s books have topped the New York Times’ best sellers list. She writes popular romance fiction including a series called Cyborg Seduction wherein each book features a cyborg who is lusted after by a human of the opposite sex. From the blurb for Book I in the series Burning Up Flint, we learn that “Flint is tall, gorgeous and dangerous. He’s a cyborg—the absolute ultimate alpha male”. What readers make of that is entirely their own concern but seemingly based on Fabio, he of the Mills and Boon covers, Flint’s augmentation appears to be quite effective because the “sex between them is smoking hot”. According to the blurb, the narrative arc of the story is propelled by Mira’s refusal to share her cyborg and “she belongs to no one—not even to a man who has captured her heart. She doesn’t know if cyborgs feel…anything. Can Flint love her? Mira is determined to find out”. Spoiler alert: after enough bodices have been ripped, we learn that the answer is a resounding yes.
While we are on the topic, Dohner also provides a well-thought-out idea as to how cyborgs reproduce. Flint, the cyborg, tells Mira, the human, that when they reach his home planet, he wants to have children and be a real family. Mira asks whether their offspring will be cyborgs. Flint answers, “Probably. I’m mostly made up of human clone material, but all cyborgs have children who are physically flawed. We were purposefully engineered flawed and it has carried to our children. Cybernetics will make our children whole and healthy”. Of course, unless, it’s the cyborg norms of capacity are applied, when their flawed children are made whole and healthy, they won’t be cyborgs, they will just be normal children with their various deficiencies remedied artificially.
No wonder Donna Haraway asserted she’d “rather be a cyborg than a goddess. In the 1990s, Haraway was at the forefront of the questioning of what artificiality meant at a time when “three crucial boundary breakdowns” (between human and animal, between organism and machine, between physical and non-physical) were challenging traditional ontologies. By way of elegant argument and beautiful prose, she provoked a deal of controversy by asserting that when conceptually established boundaries are transgressed, “the transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost, and with it the ontology grounding Western epistemology”. It was time, she suggested, to shake our shoulders and re-interpret the world and if that included cyborg sex, then so be it.
The point here is not to endorse any particular imagined vision of what a cyborg looks like or what it can do. Rather, I am pointing out that once an entity can be imagined, it can be imaged, and once an image is circulated it will, after a process of social editing, become recognisable and familiar. Like Aceti, I am suggesting that cyborgs will eventually be accepted by humans as entities with independent agency, able to operate freely as part oft he social fabric of the people who initially denied them a place therein.
Jason Barnes’ ability to play faster than an unaugmented drummer is impressive but how that translates into enhanced music making is still an unknown. If and when it becomes apparent that the music he makes is better because of his augmentation, it will be interesting to see whether it becomes commercially available. Would you cut off an arm in order to have a crack at Barnes’ Guinness Book of Records record for drumming speed? Would it be ethical to do so? Is it any different in principle that getting braces for unaligned teeth or any of the more invasive cosmetic surgeries?
What then of the cyborg improvising free jazz? Free jazz is a genre where musicians make decisions based on what is important to them in the context of the music they are creating. How will the artificial side of a cyborg decide what is important? Perhaps the answer is that the data stored in the cyberspace will be its information store and provide its affective aesthetic. It‘s not a wholly new idea: Extended Mind Theory proposes that the human mind exists beyond the confines of the brain, an idea that offers a framework for reconceptualising the Internet as an external mind. Will it mean that the artificial side of the cyborg can create product that is beyond what its human side could produce? What role will the human side contribute when a cyborg improvises free jazz? Will it be a controller, an influencer, a contributor or a whiny voice in the background? According to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, the most likely answer is that the question will become increasingly irrelevant, because as she points out, the most dearly held boundaries between natural and artificial entities are increasingly being recognised as inchoate, incorrect and irrelevant.
There will probably always be people who insist that species boundaries be protected but a much more profitable line of thought contemplates sympoietic rather than competitive relationships within the cyborg musician; relationships that evolve as synergies between the human and artificial sides combine and enhance each other to bring about new understandings. It seems to me that the natural and artificial sides of a cyborg working together offers a way forward for free jazz because it means that boundaries are not autopoietically defined, and control is distributed contextually between the components in a way that allows the system as a whole to evolve and change as radically as is warranted by the music being created. This is what improvisation in free jazz is all about: every contribution is potential.
Cyborg music is the result of humans and machines pooling their resources to create something new and affective, made by an entity wherein the human brain isn’t simply a curatorial door-bitch and the computer is not simply a pre-programmed algorithm enforcer with access to banks of licks, patterns and cued phrases, triggered by pre-determined cues. Both parts are capable of creative input in terms of generative decision-making, and authorial editing and both must also have the capacity to make real-time decisions in response to the music that is being played. Most importantly both parts must have their own agency in the process and the ability to make music that either alone cannot make. Cyborg music is the acceptance of artificial intelligence as another step towards making better music, accepting it as a legitimate input in the creative process as well as augmenting the product in terms of output.
Cyborgs will provide a new way for humans to exercise a measure of agency in an environment that is fast losing its exclusively human cornerstones. Most, if not all of what has been and will be done, computers will (eventually) do better than humans. What remains is the unexpectedly and idiosyncratically quirky, and, if truth be told, that has always been the domain of a small, careless vanguard from among which only a very few have justified their endeavours beyond their own dreams. Augmenting that vanguard to be better at what they do is the most profitable way to keep humans in the game. Cyborg music is already here and as Shakespeare said, we either surf the tide to fortune or we lose all our ventures. That is the sea on which we are now afloat, regardless of how shallow and placid or wild and stormy we might think it to be. And in the end, like all great innovators in that vanguard, cyborg musicians won’t care what we think of them or their music. They’ll play because they have to and like all really cool musicians, they won’t care what anyone else thinks of it.