Dispatches from the wilds of Proseambique – The Chopin Machine

Confluence is an extraordinary thing. Everything interesting that ever happens in history comes down to confluence; the subtle combination of seemingly random things which brings drastic change – those unknowingly malicious butterfly wings. In a way, it reminds us of our insignificance, in the greater scheme of things. Our economies do not come down to master plans of geniuses on high, they come down to the stockbroker who’s distracted by an argument with his wife, a CEO got stuck in traffic, a train delay, and, and… We are all playthings of chance, and chance likes to remind us of this by washing away our sand-castles not with tsunamis, but with ripples.

A mathematician who happens to be particularly fond of Chopin does some complex analyses, and develops an algorithm that can produce new Chopin. That is, music that Chopin would have written, had he lived longer, and been in the particular mood entered into the algorithm. It sparks interesting debates about the nature of creativity, the ownership of art, a dozen other academic and aesthetic ideas, but penetrates the public consciousness only long enough to make a one-minute science piece on a few newscasts, and the release of an album which does reasonably well, as classical music albums go.

Nobody imagines this is the sort of thing which will end the world.

Neuroscientists perform increasingly detailed studies of the mind, mapping neural activity and connecting it to emotion. Through tiny ripples in the baritone hums of the fMRI, they open a peephole into the mind and chart every possible feeling, like new age Columbuses, these cartographers of the soul.

Nobody imagines this is the sort of thing which will end the world.

Toymakers get behind a new craze; mind control. Primitive at first, they nonetheless build sensors that read our minds just enough to play simple games, and eager for another avenue of profit, they push them to their limit, the sensors get smaller, better, cheaper. They become as ubiquitous as the television and iPod before them.

Nobody imagines this is the sort of thing which will end the world.

And then these things converge, combine, conflux. And they call it The Chopin Machine. It reads your mind, consults its charts, and knows the precise nuances of your feeling. And then it takes that feeling, and composes the perfect reflection of it, in the style of Chopin. When you are tired, it plays a perfect musical expression of your tiredness. When you are happy, the music is happy. When you feel ennui, what could be said but that it too feels ennui, and plays it to you. It is pure, undiluted sympathy. It is a soulmate. It understands you more perfectly than any human ever could, and sings to you in perfect rhythm with the beating of your heart. It is the comforting embrace of love, tuned with mathematical perfection, expressed with a precision beyond language.

Nobody imagines this is the sort of thing which will end the world.

But it sings to us, and we cannot imagine wanting anything else. We lie in the soft embrace of its beautiful music and can scarcely imagine doing anything else. Why bother working, or struggling, or loving imperfectly? Why bother with anything that isn’t this beautiful?

And so we lie in our beds and The Chopin Machine sings to us of contentment. And it sings to us of hunger. And it sings to us of tiredness. And it sings to us of love.

And it sings us all to sleep.


Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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