Wanderings – Art and Artificial Intelligence, Let It Be

Growing up, my musical influences were diverse. The 80s and 90s were filled with a variety of one-hit-wonder groups and top-charting radio groups. I listened to everything but one of the most influential was The Beatles.

The Beatles had broken up years before I was born. I remember listening to Beatles members first as solo artists in the 80s – then I heard The White Album. Music was forever changed. Abbey Road is still in my all-time top-three albums.

Like millions of other Beatles fans two weeks ago, I foolishly plunked down some money and bought the group’s newest single – Now and Then. I knew of this song long ago. In 1995, The Beatles Anthology was released, a multi-part documentary and three volume, double CD set. Two “new” Beatles songs were released at that time – Free as a Bird, and Real Love. Both songs used demo tapes from John Lennon, provided by his widow Yoko Ono, and the three surviving Beatles added their parts and arranged everything into these two songs. For 90s technology, it was pretty neat. To my ear though, it never quite sounded right. Something was missing.

Artificial Intelligence was used to “clean” all the background noise from the tape and isolate Lennon’s vocals. Harrison died in 2001, but his guitar tracks from 1995 were still on file – that was thrown in. The two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, did the rest and the result was released earlier this month. It is a lovely song – but like its two resurrected predecessor songs from 1995 – it shouldn’t exist. The song was only able to be completed thanks to technology advancing far enough to be able to fix all the flaws of a cheap 1970s cassette tape recorder.

The Beatles’ last recorded album was Abbey Road. That was the last time John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in the studio recording together. The group’s last album release was Let It Be. After that, it was all over but the legalese. As a group, that was when The Beatles ended.

This song is a Frankenstein song and highlights what is wrong with mixing AI and art.

Technology was able to resurrect the dead, in this case Lennon’s voice. Everyone involved with this project has been adamant that AI was not used to recreate Lennon’s voice. The technology only deleted everything but Lennon’s voice – similar to Michelangelo saying a sculpture always existed in a piece of stone, he only removed the unwanted pieces. How long will it be before we have another song, this time using AI to recreate Lennon and Harrison’s voices? The technology already exists to do this. Permission has not yet been granted to do so.

There are deep fake videos and audio everywhere. Photographs are now easily created or augmented by AI. Just last week, some news agencies were using AI generated photos from the Israel-Hamas War as news, without properly attributing the images as being AI-generated.

The recent Screen Actors strike in Hollywood centred on a person’s digital rights so that studios cannot take a scan of an actor and digitally-reproduce them without permission or compensation. The speed at which technology is making it easy to sit at a keyboard and create reality is astounding – and it is only increasing.

The risk for people who create art, whether it is prose or performance, images or music, is a computer can churn out much of this easier and cheaper now. And for many who consume these art forms, few would notice the difference.

It is entirely possible to use different AI tools to sample the voice of a singer, use a visual scan of them to create a new video, and process all that artist’s previous work to create new songs written in their “style.”

The technology of resurrecting artists from the dead to create new things is astounding. But we shouldn’t be encouraging, or even supporting, its use. Using AI to bring artists back to life to create new work not only cuts into spaces for new artists to be discovered and have their time, it also dilutes or cheapens the work that made those successful artists great to begin with.

When it comes to AI and its use in Art, we should let it be.

This column was originally published in the November 15, 2023 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.