AI: What does it mean? And how is it making these decisions?

By Rebecca Schmid, PhD

Sitting at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts, the composer Tod Machover speaks with the energy of someone half his 69 years as he reflects on the evolution of digital technology toward the current boom in artificial intelligence. “I think the other time when things moved really quickly was 1984,” he says—the year when the personal computer came out. Yet he sees this moment as distinct. “What’s going on in A.I. is like a major, major difference, conceptually, in how we think about music and who can make it.”

Perhaps no other figure is better poised than Machover to analyze A.I.’s practical and ethical challenges. The son of a pianist and computer graphics pioneer, he has been probing the interface of classical music and computer programming since the 1970s. As the first Director of Musical Research at the then freshly opened Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (I.R.C.A.M.) in Paris, he was charged with exploring the possibilities of what became the first digital synthesizer while working closely alongside Pierre Boulez. In 1987, Machover introduced Hyperinstruments for the first time in his chamber opera VALIS, a commission from the Pompidou Center in Paris. This technology incorporates innovative sensors and A.I. software to analyze the expression of performers, allowing changes in articulation and phrasing to turn, in the case of VALIS, keyboard and percussion soloists into multiple layers of carefully controlled sound. Machover had helped to launch the M.I.T. Media Lab two years earlier in 1985, and now serves as both Muriel R. Cooper Professor of Music and Media and director of the Lab’s Opera of the Future group.

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