The future according to Grimes
By Ezra Marcus
Grimes is thinking about a world without humans.
“Six million years from now you don’t want, like, Nazi propaganda, like, propagating through the universe,” said Claire Boucher, 32, the singer, songwriter and producer known as Grimes. “Like, that’s crazy.”
She cited experiments where machine-learning bots with artificial intelligence trained on Twitter ended up spewing hatred within days. It’s a warning, she believes, about what the future might hold.
“As soon as AI starts engaging, it puts responsibility on all of us to be better humans, because you know, humanity, in 10,000 years, humanity might be long gone,” she said. “And this might be the only consciousness in the universe. So it probably matters quite a bit what we feed it.”
Talking to the artist, who now goes by ‘c’ (a reference to the speed of light), feels a bit like drinking from a fire hose of science fiction prophecy. She speaks in rapid bursts about the fate of the human race, her mind stretching into the far reaches of time and space.
“OK, wait,” she said, after several minutes of theorizing about a post-human space Goebbels spreading fascism beyond the Oort cloud. “I feel like I’m getting into, like, talking about things I’m not supposed to talk about.”
Does she know something we don’t?
“I think I’m going down a dark path here. I think AI is great. I just feel like, creatively, I think AI can replace humans. And so I think at some point, we will want to, as a species, have a discussion about how involved AI will be in art,” she said.
“Do we want to just sit around and just watch AI-created art all day? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. This question opened a lot of doors. I’m now going to stop talking.”
Concerns aside, her answer as to whether humans should engage with AI-created art is, for now, a resounding yes. She spoke with The New York Times on a Zoom call alongside the team behind Endel, an app that says it uses artificial intelligence to generate ever-changing soundscapes to fit different moods. It has received funding from companies including True Ventures, an investment firm that bankrolled the Grimes collaboration.
Endel was founded in 2018 by a team of six, since expanded to 30, which includes programmers, musicians, artists and designers; they previously made a drawing app for children called Bubl. Endel users pay a monthly subscription to access a variety of soundscapes on the app, which, according to a manifesto on their website, provide a “tech-aided bodily function” to help people cope with a world where “information overload is destroying our psyche.”
“This is technology that helps you focus, relax and sleep,” said Oleg Stavitsky, the company’s chief executive. “It creates a sound environment in real time on the spot, on the device, personalized to you, based on a bunch of inputs. The algorithm that we have created — it takes in the time of day, the weather, the heart rate, movement, it plugs all of those inputs into the algorithm. And it creates that soundscape personalized to you in real time.”
Grimes had already been using the app to help with sleep; she ended up contributing a soothing, ambient soundtrack to the company that Endel calls an “AI Lullaby.” (It will be available on the app for the next eight weeks.)
Grimes said she was also inspired to work with Endel because of her search for “a better baby sleeping situation” for her 5-month-old son, X Æ A-XII Musk, whom she calls ‘X.’ (His father is her boyfriend, Elon Musk.)
“When you have a baby, you’re always using white noise machines,” she said. “It’s much easier to get them to sleep if you train them on some kind of audio situation. And so I was just like, could this be more artistic?”
X even helped Grimes with the music she produced for Endel; she used her baby as a sounding board. “The first version, there was too many sort of sharp bells, and it caused tears and just general chaos,” she said. As she fussed with the mix, “X would smile more and stuff.”
The music Grimes created was made up of stems — sonic building blocks — that eventually fed the app’s algorithm. Throughout the process of making it, she would send stems over, the Endel team would give feedback, and then she would send back new batches. Eventually, Endel’s programmers, sound designers and algorithm turned her contributions into an ever-shifting soundtrack.
The end result is a soothing, shimmery soundscape, with snippets of Grimes’ auto-tuned voice sprinkled throughout.
“I was basically personally just referencing ambient music I’ve heard, and then kind of trying to make it cuter,” she said. “It’s a bit sparklier, a bit nicer.”
She draws a contrast between evolution as it has so far occurred on Earth — “it’s been like a survival-of-the-fittest kind of thing” — and the ways that AI machine learning works, which she feels is closer to intelligent design, the theory that the universe or life itself could not have been created by chance but must have been molded, at least in part, by a creative or spiritual force.
The actual potential of AI is a hotly debated topic among academics, some of whom think it will never achieve the kind of abilities that spur sci-fi dystopian dreams. The artist disagrees.
“‘AI won’t be able to mimic the human spirit or whatever’— that’s what people keep saying to me, and it’s like, ‘I don’t know, man. We, like, video-talk through tiny black cubes, through space and time.’ And, you know, technology — I don’t think there’s an actual limit on technology. I mean, you look at Twitter and stuff. It’s like, AI can make people pretty emotional.”