April 16, 2019

AI is improving, not taking journalists' jobs

While the fear of AI replacing human jobs in certain sectors might be warranted, those in the journalism field can breathe a sigh of relief and even rejoice, according to journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, WIRED, Dogtown Media and Graphika.

Earlier in March, five journalists from those publications met with and spoke to over 1,000 students across the Missouri School of Journalism, the Trulaske College of Business, the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Science on March 18-19 as part of the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Innovation Series.

The overall message was that AI is bringing positive change to the news field such as through customized content, improved user relationships, moderating comment sections, and creating more efficient workflows.

Some key takeaways

  • Artificial intelligence is a tool to allow journalists to better understand readers. “Can we make a story more personally relevant to a user, to the reader, watcher or listener? If we can do that, that’s what makes people establish trust. Not just that the information is believable, but the information is believable AND it matters to ME.” (Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Washington Post)
  • We must recognize what AI is and is not capable of in order to make it work for us. It is certainly an imperfect tool, but has allowed Conde Naste publications to make more strategic spending decisions with advertising thanks to data that provides a better understanding of its users. (Jahna Berry, Head of Content Operations, WIRED)
  • AI offers a means for journalists to re-imagine and better leverage their skill sets. The issue that has always existed for journalists that “there’s always been more data than (journalists) can sift through, You just have to know how to ask the right questions (of) the data, the records, to get (to the) relevant story.” (Nick Monaco, Disinformation Analyst, Graphicka)
  • Journalists need to know who writes the algorithms behind AI, understand their intentions and ultimately hold them accountable. (Steve Rosenbush, Enterprise Technology Editor, The Wallstreet Journal)
  • AI is useful to journalists in allowing them to work smarter, faster and more efficiently. This will then free up more time for journalists and other knowledge workers to think creatively on problem solving and apply themselves to what they do best. (March Fischer, CEO and Co-founder, Dogtown Media)

We’ve been here before

In an episode of MAEKAN It Up, we discussed the potential impact of AI on the creative industries and the workers in them. As with journalism, the importance of human intuition will remain a key factor that prevents the complete replacement of human creative jobs, but it will at least replace a number of human tasks—hopefully the least desirable ones.

Regardless of the job nature, there will always be tasks that are important but time-consuming and that require significantly less creative thinking. And it’s these tasks that we would be happy to allow AI to “have” so that it frees us up to do other things that utilize more of our skill set. Or even better, it can do several rough but usable first passes or concepts that we can then tweak or re-iterate from.

Overall, like Monaco and Fischer above, we remain confident that for now, AI has a welcome role to play by doing our tasks, but they won’t be taking our entire jobs.

April 6, 2019

What happens to StockX & GOAT if Nike embraces counterfeit technology?

Nike RFID StockX GOAT Authentication
Source:

StockX and GOAT are the two leading sneaker reselling platforms focused on providing a simple and secure selling process. Beyond matching buyers and sellers, sneaker platforms have taken on the responsibility of authenticating sneakers. But what if sneaker brands implement measures to authenticate sneakers straight from the factory floor? adidas and Nike are both looking into RFIDs to prevent counterfeiting.

What are RFIDs?

RFIDs (Radio-frequency identification) have been a point of discussion around supply chain management for the last 20 years. It’s been cost-prohibitive to implement at scale but as pricing decreases it’s a viable option. RFIDs work through electromagnetic fields and allow readers to capture electronically-stored data associated with tags. The image above is an example of a new RFID tag from Nike that aims to verify authenticity and reduce counterfeiting.

How would this work with sneakers?

  • Shoes would come attached with an RFID tag that contains a unique ID
  • Tags would be traceable and the unique ID would be virtually impossible to spoof
  • In addition, its believed that copying  RFID tags would be cost prohibitive
  • Here’s a presentation from 2014 that shows a potential application, as you can see the process isn’t exactly new

Should marketplaces be worried?

Marketplaces like GOAT and StockX have  heavily invested in authentication systems and processes. Naturally, for buyers and sellers, this comes at a cost to GOAT and StockX; the burden of proof is neither on the seller nor on the buyer. For GOAT users, the seller fee ranges from 9.5% + seller fee compred to StockX users where fees are 14.5% base + 3% payment processing. Naturally, these costs are often passed onto consumers. Marketplaces like  GOAT and StockX may be thinking ahead, but what they bring is more than just authentication. These platforms enable convenience and scale while reducing fragmentation. There’s still a lack of foresight into the speed of authentication and whether the investments from GOAT into machine-learning have paid off. But unless a cheaper, more convenient marketplace arises that guarantees authenticity across multiple brands, GOAT and StockX still have control.

Does it even matter?

Going to these highly-trafficked platforms provides you a quick overview of availability. But another point of interest, these platforms aren’t solely reliant on the hype. There’s a need and interest to match buyers and sellers of more generic long-tail offerings. And having said that, these offerings are comparitively of less interest for bootleggers.

If RFIDs go mainstream, can new opportunities arise?

Could we see the emergence of marketplaces that have fewer fees? Imagine a marketplace that features modern, tagged shoes. There may still need a middleman to accept payments and release shoes, but the authentication process would be removed. Likewise, can brands create their own secondary-market channels? Would Nike allow a marketplace section on SNKRS or would they prefer to not have that liability?

Let’s recap all the questions looming

  • Will RFID copying truly be cost-prohibitive?
  • Will this be a function only available for new, unworn, tagged sneakers (or will people wear it like the New Era hologram sticker)?
  • Does the role of the middleman change (less authentication, more escrow)
  • Or will peer-to-peer opportunities reemerge (like the good ol’ days)?

 

April 3, 2019

Apple News+ will probably be the final nail in the coffin for news publishing

Apple News Plus + will change publishing

Apple News+ might end up being the final nail in the coffin for global news publishing. Unveiled a few days ago, the new USD 9.99 subscription service will aggregate your favorite news sites and magazines all on your Apple devices. Much like iTunes and Spotify revolutionized the music industry, so too will the new news system. What might be a short term win for readers may spell the demise of a flurry of publishers.

Apple wants your money, bar none

Apple’s business model always relied on using software to generate subsequent hardware sales. For example, iTunes exists to sell you iPods and iPhones (and those AirPods you flex hard with). However, the company has experienced challenges recently. Between lukewarm product launches, abysmal sales and increasing competition, Tim Cook now needs to diversify more aggressively. The latest Keynote exemplifies this change: Apple wants to be a part of everything you do. Beyond News+, payments are next via this new card system that extends (directly or not) credit lines to existing customers. Services help generate recurring and steady cash flows from loyal customers, that way the Cupertino behemoth can rest easy/easier if sales don’t go as planned. As such, News+ becomes an extension of this vision, and that might be the problem.

War of the worlds

Why is this such a big deal? If you’ve ever heard of aggregation theory, you’ll quickly understand why this is such a game changer. Imagine buying a single subscription for the best content around instead of one source out of many. Rather than pick your favorite one and forgoing others, you can now get everything for a fraction of the total price. In theory, that’s neat for consumers who get more bang for their buck. It’s also great for Apple who now owns the relationship with consumers, rather than publishers themselves. Publishers get a share of revenue they perhaps never had access to after giving away a hefty 50% cut in exchange for eyeballs. Except it doesn’t work that way, because systems like News+ work roughly the same as Google and Facebook. At the click of a button, the aggregator can change how the algorithm works, sending creators in a pivot frenzy. You might even remember that famous “pivot to video” saga which ultimately sunk firms like Mic.

Publishing’s death bed

Publishers should be terrified. If media wasn’t hard enough already, top-firms will either need to get onboard with Apple or keep fighting on their own. Many sites already have paywalls to ensure sustainability, but News+’s competition changes everything. Media firms are seeing dwindling ad revenues as it continues to be eaten up by the same places. Everything becomes a catch 22: publishers either sign up for Apple News+, relinquish their customer relationship and half of their revenues but become accessible on a powerful platform or continue alone, risking extinction in the process. Just as most people either pay for HBO or Netflix, so will users with news. One might prefer the News+’s large catalog just a single NYT membership. That makes total sense from a consumer standpoint, but this tradeoff becomes the ultimate demise of publishing. In addition, it creates the wrong kinds of incentives, just as is the case with Facebook’s algorithm: potential fake news, clickbait and low hanging fruits. If publishers die off one by one, there will be very little journalistic sources left, eroding an already diminished pillar of free speech.

Change is partially self-inflicted

In scouring TechCrunch’s comment section, many readers point to the fact that the firm uses copious amounts of cookies and tracking software to generate display ads. People hate bad advertising as it creates terrible web experiences. That’s also why people download ad-blockers to get rid of the nuisance altogether. Users should be upset: cookies are a form of invasion of privacy, one way or another. You wouldn’t want someone following you around in real life: why would it be ok to do so online instead? Media firms have know this for years, and yet did absolutely nothing about it. That’s why Apple News+ is a welcome relief to many: a beautifully crafted experience offering the best content from the best sources, ad-free and for a nominal fee. The writing was on the wall a long time ago and News+’s arrival may just accelerate the process.

4th quarter solutions

MAEKAN recognizes that ads pollute and hamper an experience, something we truly care about when delivering excellent stories. So what are potential solutions to the problem? We don’t have a silver bullet, but we think users ought to be able to chose which ads they are fed, rather than get the creepy feeling that something they talked about randomly pops up halfway through their scroll. Turns out firms already listen to you, so why not instead take control instead? Some suggestions we came up with:

  • What if you could fill in a quick, weekly survey in exchange for an ad-free experience?
  • The friction point is minimal but the payout is high.
  • Users still help “pay” the platforms, but do so willingly and knowingly.
  • On top of that, direct feedback gives advertisers much more accurate data to work with and improve upon.
  • Technical challenges aside, this can be a happy medium which respects the integrity of both parties involved. Regardless, it might already be too late anyways, but it won’t cost anything to try.

Lessons from China

Compared to the West, China discovered the web mobile first. This means that most firms never had the real estate necessary to run display ads, to begin with, and that’s important. Chinese netizens are more than happy to pay for separate services online rather than aggregate everything in a single place. While you still have super apps, most Chinese people are comfortable paying for content digitally via e-wallets. That’s why podcasting is so big there, but its not the sole industry reaping the benefits of micropayments either. Since display ads were never a thing, content creators were always bound to make money in different ways. No one wants intrusive popups on their phones either. Perhaps there is still time for firms to transform internally using services like Apple Pay and regain financial control in different ways.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Apple’s move is neither surprising nor good for publishers. From large platforms to the smallest, aggregation will likely reduce the size of the pie and put many more businesses on the street. However, it could be a harbinger for better things to come: this new change will hasten inevitable transformations. We just hope that the next iteration will benefit all parties involved and become a fertile ground for better content and conversations.

April 2, 2019

Tech and fashion are very different types of branded products. This is how their relationship could work.

Technology and fashion both serve different purposes within the branding spectrum. Technology is about reinforcing network effects and putting it into the hands of many. Conversely, high fashion creates demand through limited amounts of exclusive products. We’ve yet to see a full-fledged tech product that can be truly seen as a fashion product.

The Apple Watch was supposed to change the wearable landscape

When the Apple Watch launched some five years ago, it aimed to establish a new tech-fashion dynamic. Its partnership with Hermes was meant to be a flagship but failed to deliver. But since then, it’s clear that the intended impact of Apple in fashion is mediocre at best. Various designers have entered the space, but their impact has been minimal with a cosmetic change here and there. Watches have typically benefited from some sort of tech partnership. They include the aforementioned Apple Watch, Samsung’s Gear S with Diesel Black Gold, Intel and Opening Ceremony’s MICA smartbangle, and Tag Heuer’s own smart watches. As a category, wearables are an important part of various portfolios, Apple included.

But it can be argued that anything with a fashion angle is often seen more of a performance-additive product than a pure fashion product.

Performance negates brand and fashion

There’s a reason why certain products are unable to establish themselves as one of the other. Performance can often play a negating role in aesthetics. That is, if a product is a balance of performance and aesthetics, the larger role of performance allows for one to overlook the aesthetics. Tech has often benefited from this very relationship. We’ve come to grips with innovative performance in itself is an aesthetic, however outlandish it may be. It’s why an Acronym jacket looks the way it does or an F1 car is so far flung from the average road-going car.

In short, the more performance offered by a product, the greater opportunity that we overlook its aesthetics. And without aesthetics? It removes itself from the realm of fashion all together.

Technology and fashion aren’t in alignment

MAEKAN favorite Scott Galloway, L2 founder and professor of marketing at the New York University’s Stern School of Business, had this powerful quote: “Technology is essentially about creating utility and spreading it over billions of people. Fashion is about creating a moment, a trend, a romance and spreading it across a small amount of influential people.”

Some would argue that the iPhone has long been considered a fashion product. To an extent, yes. But in the face of emerging competitors with better technology, UX, and overall experience, Apple is especially vulnerable in regions like Asia. Once a marker of status and performance, there are other options.

Furthermore, the one notion that ties it all back together is a particularly strong insight from Eugene Wei:

This season, the color of the moment might be saffron. Why? Because someone cooler than me said so. Tech tends to prioritize growth at all costs given the non-rival, zero marginal cost qualities of digital information. In a world of abundance, that makes sense. However, technology still has much to learn from industries like fashion about how to proactively manage scarcity, which is important when goods are rivalrous. Since many types of status are relative, it is, by definition, rivalrous. There is some equivalent of crop rotation theory which applies to social networks, but it’s not part of the standard tech playbook yet.

Technology’s philosophy is about mass adoption, it’s challenging to do so under the guise of a tech wearable. If the (Insert_Brand_Here) x Apple Watch is limited to 500 pieces but maintains the same functionality, a regular in-line Apple watch is a perfectly fine substitute.

The background and intent of a designer matters

While tech hardware and fashion can both be uniquely beautiful, they serve different functions. In a recent interview with facewear company O2O2, founder Dan Bowden mentioned the challenges of tech-centric designers:

We had the opportunity to work with industrial and technology designers. But they don’t really understand the human form and they don’t work with the human body as much. If this platform is going to have a human design element, we’ve got to work with people who understand this and that’s fashion. It will be core to what we’re doing. If you look at the human body, the most prominent and valuable part is the face. If we went out and started to do this overly tech sort of thing, we’d run into problems quickly. We must work with people who genuinely understand that.

How can fashion and tech work together?

The first step would be to redefine the best of both worlds. Fashion’s unique offering is that it can immediately encapsulate movements and trends in a much shorter time frame. Designing a garment takes significantly less time than bringing a new piece of hardware to live. Technology, on the other hand, is about bettering our lives through convenience and performance. There are many emerging examples of this relationship including the Commuter x Jacquard by Google, and Jimmy Choo’s heated hiking boot. Neither fall into the same category of say an Apple watch, but they utilize fashion as a vector for messaging and ideas. As is the case with many successful collaborations, tech-infused fashion needs to meet in the middle for it to truly make moves.

Closing thoughts

Would you buy a Nokia 3310 today for more than it was worth when it first came out? Probably not, but you might pay a hefty premium on a pair of Fragment 1s instead. There’s a good reason for this: tech has a purpose and fashion has another. As things mature, tech ultimately diminishes whilst some desirable fashion goods increase in value. As fashionable objects become rare, they tend to increase in value, none more so than pristine items. Fashionable items also have set purposes. I don’t expect bags to be completely different in purpose in 200 years, but I expect communications to be improved. Tech ultimately is finite and quickly obsolete whilst fashion retains a different purpose altogether. Perhaps the best way to merge both is instead to use base models with interchangeable parts: this will preserve aesthetics whilst keeping with the times with the latest hardware.

April 1, 2019

Lambda's innovative school model requires tuition payment only after students land a job

Lambda has received a significant amount of interest lately for its innovative methods in funding and tuition. Unlike traditional schools, students pay for tuition only after they’ve landed a job that pays them more than USD 50,000 a year.

 

In this video by Joshua Fluke, the YouTuber visits Patrick Thompson (who he works with) in California and learns about his journey and the struggles he faced leading up to landing a job as a junior developer making $121,000 a year without a degree. Patrick is a single father currently living in a 500-square-foot apartment with his mother, dog and two children. He recently graduated from Lambda School, an online immersive Computer Science academy that trains students to become software engineers with no up-front tuition costs. Students can pay a percentage of their income after finding employment and only if they make more than $50,000 a year.

March 28, 2019

Video games are tackling mental health and compassion

Dimly lit Playstation Controller

The video game industry is responding to the increasing discussion on mental health with games designed with therapy in mind as much as entertainment and art.

In the adventure game Sea of Solitude, the main protagonist—a young woman named Kay—fights to overcome loneliness as she navigates a world fraught with monsters. The young Celtic warrior of Hellblade: Senua‘s Sacrifice deals with psychosis and 2018’s 2D platforming adventure Celeste explores themes of depression and anxiety.

But as an industry, the response isn’t limited to games and their developers. Take This was founded in 2013 following the suicide of video games journalist Matt Hughes, and is a nonprofit that provides support to the game development community and advises on best practices on how to handle the treatment of mental health in gaming and gamer contexts.

The big and small dogs

For now, the great bulk of games addressing themes of mental health have come from smaller independent developers, presumably because of both the willingness to tackle those themes, but to also address the needs of the market—even if that market might not overtly say so. Orpheus Self Care Entertainment is a start-up that explicitly addresses improving mental health through its games by publishing virtual reality games in which players practice mindfulness and meditation.

But while independent studios have more license to take risks and cover comparatively “unusual” subjects, the aforementioned Sea of Solitude is being released by EA Originals, a collection of independent games published by the larger and more notorious EA. While the parent company has been fighting hard to win back some of its lost repute from cash-grabbing tactics in its Madden, FIFA, and Star Wars Battlefront series (such as through its low-key release of the hit free-to-play shooter Apex Legends), Sea of Solitude could represent a new step towards including games with strong mental health themes in the strategies of big game companies.

As the once hushed discussion about mental health becomes normal conversation, that conversation will inevitably make its way into consumer demands, which will translate into new products—as the dearth of say, mindfulness apps on the market would show. And as more gamers, casual and hardcore alike, start to speak out about the need to address those topics, the industry can respond to the demands of its audience.

The changing role of games as art form

As we’ve seen before, video games and their creators will continue and, perhaps you could say, will always struggle to break the medium away from its association with pure escapism, entertainment and baser human instincts like aggression. We wrote before how even Rockstar Games’ AAA title Red Dead Redemption 2 became an unwitting battleground for divisive American politics as it continued to be lauded for its beautiful and rich story world (granted, which is still violent).

But like any art form that can carry a message, be it literature, cinema and photography, video games can be designed with higher purposes in mind for their audiences. Games like This War of Mine: The Little Ones was a survival game, but one that forced the gamer to confront the realities of being in a war-torn country and the ethical decisions they are fortunate to never have to make in real life. Jenova Chen, who created the critically and commercially successful adventure title Journey and who describes himself as a “digital monk,” is hoping to design new games that teach peace, compassion and personal transformation.

The future of mindful gaming

Whatever future goals developers have in mind, they are certainly welcome as the landscape of all media continues to incorporate demands for human stories. Where the interactive nature of games—where a player can act on the game—has always been the most alluring and unfortunately most emphasized half of the interaction, we believe there’s room for a segment of games whose explicit goal is to influence rather than just entertain us.

Just like we have everything from teen fiction (that adults read) to classics for literature, and mindless flicks to mind-changing documentaries for cinema, we are overdue for a similar recognition for video games.

March 27, 2019

Apple redesigns credit cards, but can it change our relationship with debt?

Apple Card Titanium Goldman Sachs Mastercard

Apple recently unveiled a flurry of new products which includes its new credit card system. The card, developed in partnership with Goldman Sachs and Mastercard, will enable payments without the need for CC numbers, CCV codes and signatures.

To use the card, all you need is an iOS-enabled device and a point-of-sale terminal which uses ApplePay. This entry marks a continuation of the company’s expansion into new services.

Apple is diversifying to better serve its users

Apple is known as a hardware company first and foremost; this strategy has helped it become a trillion dollar company. The first example of this was the iPod which skilfully mixed a seemingly great value proposition ($0.99 songs) with beautiful but unremarkable hardware. An iPod’s performance is no better than that of a Zune, but we know who ultimately won the battle. Over time, Tim Cook’s behemoth expanded into services to diversify away from its main revenue resource. Given the recent iPhone slump, it looks as though the company will need to continue in that direction. Beyond diversification, Apple knows that its user base is incredibly sticky, and often affluent. We’ve seen the Airpod memes, but there’s a layer of truth to them. Scott Galloway explains it brilliantly here too: Apple is a status and sex symbol rather than an electronics company.

More ways to spend, but what about savings?

In typical Apple fashion, the new credit card is meant to help you simplify spending and improve your savings. Through an intuitive wallet app and clean design, the tech giant wants you to get the benefits of a bank with the simplicity of a fintech outfit. As always, Apple wants to be the tech giant that looks out for you; the keynote message was no different.  However, if we look under the hood, Apple might be enticing quite the opposite. For a start, the system provides immediate cash-back on purchases: the different gamification rewards will likely induce dopamine hits as you shop. The constant feedback loop and Apple’s line of credit might instead make users more likely to purchase even more via its devices. Even if the design is meant to help you view and understand your spending, most likely it’ll help dig a deeper debt hole.

Joining the dance

The move is ultimately not surprising. The new initiative is a way of tackling advances from competitors like Amazon. For comparison, nearly half(!) of US households are Amazon Prime subscribers. By opening up a payment gateway, Apple facilitates the first piece of the value chain: ensuring people have a way of purchasing goods at all times. Firms like Amazon have already figured this out, oftentimes mimicking rivals from across the pond in China.  Companies like Amazon also extend preferable lines of credit to top sellers, so long as the goods end up back on the platform, creating a positive cycle of purchasing and rent-seeking in the process. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Apple’s seeming good-will into payments may ultimately create more debt problems in the long term.

Can Apple improve our debt?

Debt is primarily a by-product of incentives and behaviors. Historically, very few companies have successfully changed human behavior patterns. Why would Apple do that? From a business-model standpoint, Apple might maximize profits from interest rates and other potential fees (the card has no annual fees or late payment fees, for now). More broadly, there are no reasons for users to change their behavior. If Apple instead chooses to provide better incentives around savings, then perhaps it can make good on its goals. More importantly, having such a vision will help it gain a greater foothold with consumers, further solidifying its niche.

March 24, 2019

Freelancers need health & other benefits. This is where Catch comes into play

Freelance catch safety net benefits
Source:

Freelancing can be incredibly fulfilling and challenging at the same time. On one end, gig workers have the flexibility to work when and where they please and leverage their skillsets. There is no boss beyond a client, and freelancers can take on the projects they want. On the other hand, they tend to work much, much harder and precariously so.

For freelancers with limited savings, taking time off or going to the doctor’s is often not an option. Thankfully, new solutions are sprouting up, including Catch which offers freelancers health benefits. While Catch is a US-based startup, their recent attention shines a light on the insurance needs of a growing freelancer economy.

What is Catch?

  • Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans, and tax withholding
  • They target freelancers, contractors, and those without coverage
  • They have several services focused on evaluating health plans, retirement savings, tax withholding to help freelancers save for taxes, and time off savings to allow for vacations

Freelancers face today’s realities

Freelancers don’t get the perks corporate jobs provide their employees (normal perks like insurance, not tech perks). Whilst we know where the tradeoffs lie (flexible hours, pocket the profits directly etc.), this can deeply impact gig economy workers over time. As Catch’s founders pointed out, “(…) the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.” Indeed, with wages and jobs stagnating, governments and companies are slow to react to today’s new employment realities. Freelancers make up a growing number of the workforce which is why Catch wants to latch onto this new opportunity.

Safety nets empower workers

More importantly, firms like Catch can supercharge today’s seismic societal changes. Providing freelancers with simple insurance and benefits can help take a load off of their mind and enable their best work instead. Employees tend to underperform when external factors impact them. This is compounded for freelancers who often need to pay significantly more for fewer benefits. For example, “(…) there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.” Instead, new and nimble solutions will help freelancers do what they do best: create amazing work in an ever-changing work environment.

March 23, 2019

Music AI systems may take over the music creation process from musicians

music AI system computer

Music truly has a way of unlocking our senses and deeper selves. From hyping you up at a rave and gym to helping you study and focus during work, it plays a key role in the everyday lives of many. It’s also a USD 130 billion industry, depending on which sources you rely on. However, music is about to be turned upside down by, you guessed it, AI systems.

Music in the age of AI systems

Wait, music is core to the human experience: how could a machine replace us? We invented it to begin with, right? Unfortunately, we’re already past that point. Ed Newton-Rex founded Jukedex, a musical AI designed to create instrumentals for various end goals. Looking for a new movie score? Look no further. The system is incredibly prolific: it cranked out over 1 million (not a typo) songs since its inception and shows no signs of stopping. New brands have joined since then, likely hoping to get a share of the background music industry which hit USD 660 million in 2017. As systems continue to improve, it’s only a matter of time until we start bumping AI-created music. If that sounds far fetched, Warner Music Group just signed Edel which creates custom mood-boosting sounds. The future is now (old man).

A cause for concern?

It’s no secret that AI systems might take everything over. They’re already terrifying governments with mass unemployment, to the point where we are now seriously considering Universal Basic Income (UBI). AI systems can already make art, so these further developments should not come as a shock. However, all this begs a much deeper and tougher question: are seemingly “creative” fields no longer a haven for humans? Machines already outperform us at a myriad of tasks, but surely they cannot take away what makes us truly unique: our ability to think and execute broadly. In many ways, time will tell just how far these systems will evolve. We’d venture to say that it’ll be far beyond what we imagine.

Taking a step back

Perhaps we assume that our innate creative abilities are beyond where they actually are. If we stick to pop music, many of your favorite hit songs were made using just four chords. The Axis of Awesome brilliantly illustrated this a few years ago with their now-viral video. This should not be surprising: music relies on simple and subtle mathematical formulae that best please our brains. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (the one with that pesky theorem you couldn’t remember in high school) figured this out a long time ago. Turns out it doesn’t take all that much to please our brains with a nice tune. Given how seemingly simple it all feels, it may be no surprise that we can code this into a neat algorithm altogether. Should this put into question our core creative skills? Not all craft is the same, which is probably why we don’t compare Mozart to Nickleback.

Human history: a silver lining

It pays to know how machine learning systems work. To over-simplify, these programs rely on massive datasets to draw conclusions and hone their skills. Jukedex is the next iteration and uses deep-learning instead. However, music datasets require existing musicians’ work, begging new questions around copyright and royalties. If scientists feed “Crank Dat” into an AI system, Soulja Boy should get rewarded for his contribution.  Therefore, every prior musical piece ever created may play a pivotal role in these system’s development, opening new potential avenues of monetization for artists. More importantly, these systems exist because of human contributions, not the other way around. Humans should feel deep pride in their ability to generate meaningful things over generations. Music continues to stand the test of time, often blooming in our darkest times.

The larger picture

If we’re honest, AI systems will make great music within a few short years, but musicians should not worry altogether. Often times, music relies on great personalities that drive cultures forward. No computer can replace a human being, even though we do love our digital lives and identities. Even if it’s a hologram, seeing Tupac owning a stage feels more meaningful than watching HAL 9000 do the same. Tupac’s music tells a larger narrative of Tupac’s life and his environment (which people can latch on from a storytelling standpoint). Even if a computer were to write relatable lyrics, audiences would need to somehow empathize with a cold machine’s teenage angst. This seems like a stretch at best, but not entirely out of the question. Creatives should also rejoice at the idea that computers can speed up their workflow without impeding on their style. Computers can easily create, but they cannot easily connect. Time will tell if this continues.

House music will never die

Computerized music isn’t anything new. From synth tracks to Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, man and machine have worked intimately together for years. Your favorite trap beats were made on a really crummy sounding drum machine (yes, they meant to imitate those drums). In hindsight, this new wave of machines should not scare us, but rather give us hope to create better and deeper music. Tools remain just that: tools to improve a workflow. Humans will ultimately validate what is “good” compared to what is “bad.” If man and machine already work seamlessly, then (house) music will never die.

Look forward to more great tunes in the future. You can even go buy or steam our very own Delf’s new tracks here and unwind this weekend and enjoy it with beautiful imagery here.

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