Is artificial intelligence the key to transforming our beloved but dated Christmas tunes? Illustration: Emanuel Wiemans, Folio Art
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Little Drummer Boy and the like may instil feelings of warmth, comfort and nostalgia in many of us on first exposure each winter. But by the 25 millionth time we’ve heard them over an increasingly protracted period, everywhere from shops to pubs, TV and radio, research shows they can begin to trigger mental health stresses around everything from money to work and relationships.
And little wonder. Quite apart from being inescapable, Christmas music is, let’s face it, pretty weird.
Mildly sinister, even. A shallow, formulaic fusion of ersatz emotion, fake snowy imagery, stomach-turning innuendo and wanton sleigh-belling, underwritten by the forces of naked, rampant, screaming capitalism. And I say this as someone who kind of likes Christmas songs.
“How dare he ruin my Mariah!” I hear some of you exclaim, recoiling in horror. But if you won’t take it from me, take it from robots.
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Artificial intelligence (AI) is a coming force in the music industry, as it is in most industries (how many smart home voice assistants and robot vacuum cleaners will be given as Christmas presents this year?).
Hundreds of millions of pounds in research and development money has been invested by not only huge corporations such as Spotify, Microsoft and Sony but also tech start-ups and bedroom boffins, the aim being to explore the different ways in which robots can effectively assist and in some ways perhaps even ultimately replace humans as authors of the soundtrack to our lives.
One way in which AI makes music is through “neural networks” – complex computer programs built in the image of the human brain, which can be trained on “data sets” of hundreds or thousands of songs and other source materials, to write and even perform music shaped by that input.
Those data sets can have a particularly concentrated effect if they’re clustered around a specific theme, with distinctive and recurring tropes. Christmas songs, for example. Except the tech remains, shall we say, imperfect.
The first ever AI-generated Christmas song was created in 2016 by researchers at the University of Toronto’s tech lab. Their neural network was trained on hundreds of hours of online music, then instructed to write a song in response to a photograph of a pretty Christmas tree.
In an atonal elfin monotone, it starts singing saccharinely of how “the best Christmas present in the world is a blessing”. But as seems to happen every time anyone feeds AI anything Christmassy, things soon take a dark turn. “I’ve always been there, for the rest of our lives,” it drones, threateningly, like an evil sentient cross between Scrooge and Skynet.
One of the fascinating things about neural network generated lyrics is the way in which they give an unvarnished, emotionally sterile reading of their source material, dicing up and distorting complex human thoughts, feelings and experiences and throwing them back at us, sharp and unfiltered. The results can sometimes be accidentally poetic. Often they’re strange. Strange and disturbing.
“Bring a suck share open this fresty important baby,” runs one standout chorus line from Sing That Reindeer Happy, a bizarre AI-written Christmas song made in 2017 by American digital creative agency Redpepper, based on a data set of 230 Christmas classics and sung to the melody of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
In what may be an ironic comment on the money-grubbing commercialism of the season, or a scene from some sort of festive horror, the lyrics elsewhere cheerfully suggest we should “fill the stocking with hands”.
The rock star of artificially intelligent music making is Jukebox by OpenAI, a machine learning nonprofit co-founded by Elon Musk. It’s responsible for a series of eerie “deepfake” songs, based on the works of famous musicians – including a festive little number “by” Frank Sinatra.
“It’s Christmas time, and you know what that means,” croons a voice frighteningly redolent of Ol’ Blue Eyes from somewhere deep in the digital beyond. “Oh, it’s hot tub time!” it continues. “As I light the tree, this year we’ll be in a tub!” Did AI not consider the obvious health and safety risk of Frank fiddling with shonky Christmas lights while sitting in a hot tub?
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My favourite song from the robo-Christmas revue is an obscure but entertaining wonky-jingly ditty by an American musician called Thalo. Cunningly, Thalo fed a whole bunch of Christmas hits into GPT-2 – an opensource AI notorious for its ability to generate dangerously convincing fake news. Christmas Gift contains, among other things (“you’re as powerful as a building without central heating”), a frankly psychotic riff on the sexy frisson which festive songs love to imply smoulders between your mum and the big man in red.
“I stayed up all night, thinking,” begins an upsetting warning from the robo ghosts of Christmas future. “But all I found was me and mommy kissing Santa Claus. He could have been smitten with little Miss Frost. He could have tried to hide from the storm. But now it is Christmas Eve, and he is chasing her. She is hollering as she runs, screaming.”
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