Q&A: The AI composer

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Computer scientist Luc Steels uses artificial intelligence to explore the origins and evolution of language. He is best known for his 1999–2001 Talking Heads Experiment, in which robots had to construct a language from scratch to communicate with each other. Now Steels, who works at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), has composed an opera based on the legend of Faust, with a twenty-first-century twist. He talks about Mozart as a nascent computer programmer, how music maps onto language, and the blurred boundaries of a digitized world.


Premieres 18 September at La Monnaie, Brussels.
Public performance at the And& Summit/Festival in Leuven, Belgium, in May 2018.

Laura Spinney

Luc Steels presents an extract of Fausto at the Gaîté Lyrique theatre in Paris.

Is there a relationship between computer science and music?

A lot of computer scientists are interested in music. I think it has to do with the ability to think abstractly. Musical composition is a lot like parallel programming. You have to organize complex material in time, and convey meaning — if, like me, you believe that is what music should do. You have to build a multidimensional abstract object, and that requires an understanding of the physical properties of instruments or voices. Both music and computer science demand the ability to combine high-level imagination with very practical, technical skills. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I think, had the brain of a computer programmer — albeit an exceptional one.

Why opera?

I had wanted to write an opera for a long time, but there was research to do, labs to run. In 2011, at the Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, Spain, I was exploring how evolutionary thinking could shed light on the origins of language. Next door was neuropsychiatrist Oscar Vilarroya, who is a respected author and playwright in Spain. We started collaborating. He writes the libretto and I write the score. I hear the music in my head, then I try to recreate it mentally to pin down what each instrument should be playing. I choose a harmonic framework and a rhythmic structure, and I fill in each instrument's contribution, using the computer as an editing tool until the music resembles what I heard originally. Our first opera, Casparo, tells the tale of a robot that achieves human intelligence, and premiered in Barcelona in 2011.

Has your work on the origins of language fed into your music?

With both, I'm exploring how meaning gets expressed. One way is through syntax. You change the meaning of a sentence by swapping the subject and object. Something similar is true of music: a certain chord, played at a certain time, may generate sadness, which is meaning. It's part of the musical grammar that European culture invented, which allows composers to convey moods or emotions. It wouldn't mean the same to someone raised in a different culture. I once heard a well-known opera with a computer scientist from India. He told me that all arias sounded the same to him. For him, meaning came through rhythms and harmonics associated with Indian classical music. In fact, the formal mechanisms that we use in computing to generate and recognize syntactic structures are the same for music and language — both involve the hierarchical organization of the constitutive elements.

Tell me about your new opera, Fausto.

We wanted to explore the impact of information technology on humanity, so we transported Faust to the modern world. The original Faust sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for eternal youth and knowledge. Our Fausto is a hipster who is addicted to social media and virtual reality. Devastated by the suicide of Marguerita, who loved him, he makes a pact with Mephistopheles: in exchange for virtual communion with her, he will upload his mind and leave his body to Mephistopheles. It's a cautionary tale. Humans are being drawn into virtual worlds, and the question of how we might upload our minds to enjoy eternal life is being discussed. I see this as a dangerous trajectory. Our minds are embodied both physically and socially, as Mephistopheles knows. It is the reason he wants bodies — so that, by inhabiting them, virtual agents like him can feel fully human. Fausto only realizes it as his mind is uploading: he'll never have real love in a virtual world.

Will there be a role for new technologies in the opera?

The actors will wear virtual-reality glasses, and the audience will be able to see what they are seeing, which will be projected onto a screen. This will heighten the sense of blurred boundaries. Is Marguerita real or virtual? Dead or alive? Could Mephistopheles be an app? We want to create an atmosphere of uncertainty similar to the one in which artificial-intelligence researchers find themselves today, with respect to one important question. That is, are humans just information processors, or are there extra elements, such as consciousness, that we might never be able to capture?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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