Monday, January 30, 2006

The Future Of Music...And Humanity

Calling yourself a 'futurist' would seem to invite immediate skepticism; it's almost like calling yourself a mesmerist or an astrologer. But inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil actually has the bona fides to pull it off. Kurzweil, who by the age of twenty had developed a computer program that matched high school students to colleges, has been called the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison" by Inc. magazine. PBS chose him as one of sixteen revolutionaries who made America. So while you might be skeptical of the claims made by a self-styled futurist who happens to consume over 250 pills a day (to keep his body chemistry at optimal levels), his words do have weight.
Kurzweil's newest book, The Singularity is Near, makes a startling prediction: in our lifetimes, humans will transcend biology. According to Kurzweil, this event-the Singularity-will take place by around 2050. He envisions a radically changed world, one where there is no distinction between real and virtual reality and human and machine. Those of us who are enlightened enough to accept the Singularity (Kurzweil acknowledges that there will be subsets of the population that will resist technological augmentation and make due with their Human Bodies v. 1.0) will have millions of nanobots--microscopic robots--patrolling our bloodstreams, delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells, fighting infections, and stimulating our nerves. The stomach, heart, and lungs will be obsolete. We'll have the opportunity to upload our personalities onto the Internet or download the personalities of our friends or, for the ultimate in intimacy, our lovers. Just like the characters in the Matrix movies, we'll be able to learn new skills and languages simply by downloading the information into our computer-enhanced brains.
Kurzweil's predictions are based on two basic ideas: firstly, according to Kurzweil's data, technology growth is not a linear process, but an exponential one. Advances in technology don't gradually increase; technological advances start slowly, experience a rapid growth, then level off. Consider the airplane--Leonardo da Vinci made convincing sketches of flying machines as early as the 1400's. The Wright brothers made their first flight 500 years later, in 1903. In another 55 years, Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the earth. Secondly, Kurzweil preaches the ascendancy of all things digital. Limited forms of artificial intelligence are already available and Kurzweil predicts a fully intelligent computer, complete with emotions, by the 2020's. Throughout his book, Kurzweil asserts that digital computation can "emulate analog processes to any degree of accuracy." We at Silent Stereo Records took immediate note of that statement.
Human immortality and the end of life as we know it are fascinating topics, but we wondered what effects the Singularity will have on music. Our mission is to preserve the true sound of music through the use of analog recording devices. Digital recordings, no matter how good, can never actually reproduce an analog sound wave; the digital points can only approach the curve of a sound wave. Thus, digital recordings will always present less than the true sound of the music recording. Or so we thought. I decided to write Ray Kurzweil an email and see what effect the Singularity would have on our own Silent Stereo Records. Here's what transpired:

Dear Mr. Kurzweil,

I recently finished reading your work and I am greatly intrigued by the
scenario you predict. As I am now only 28, I should hopefully be around
for the advent of the singularity. However, there is one area of your work that has a special interest for me--the "analog vs. digital" debate. I am part of a group of musicians who, despite the advance of digital recording techniques, are diehard fans of the "old" ways. In your
book, you state that "we can emulate analog processes to any desired degree
of accuracy with digital computation"(126), but how does this apply to digital recording? I'm no sound engineer, but my understanding was that a digital recording can never perfectly capture an analog sound wave; it can only approach it. Indeed, digital recordings sometimes have a 'flat'
feel to them not present on analog recordings. Does the technology currently exist for a digital recording to perfectly emulate an analog one? Or is this technology in development and will be achieved by the time of the singularity?

You use the anecdote of the digital piano gradually outstripping the analog piano in sales to demonstrate how one technology gradually supercedes another. At the present time, digital recordings are certainly widespread, mostly due to the relative inexpensiveness of the technology and the high degree of control the engineer has over the sound. But most major label
releases, especially in the rock genre, continue to be recorded with analog devices. Is this trend about to end?
If you have thoughts on this matter (and I presume you've considered it
because of your musical background) I'd be interested in hearing them.

Thanks for your time.

Mr. Kurzweil responds:


Digital methods can em
ulate analog methods to any desired degree of accuracy. Various analog effects can be emulated with digital sound processors. The piano presents a special challenge because of the ability to use all the several hundred strings (many of the 88 keys strike
multiple strings) to act as a resonant chamber when the pedal is up. This can
be emulated but requires a digital filter with hundreds of poles and that is
challenging. However, it is doable and there are currently reasonable
digital simulations of the full piano that fool musicians.


Ray Kurzweil

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So there you have it. Apparently, digital processes can fully emulate analog ones. Either way, we at Silent Stereo Records will not be deterred. In fifty years, we may be the sole purveyors of analog recordings, but to our simple, biological brains, that's the only way to go.

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