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What James Dean’s rebirth means for the future of music

It was announced the other week that James Dean will be returning to cinema screens, 64 years after his death.

This should perhaps come as no surprise, given that deepfakes are becoming easier and easier for tech companies to master (see the recent launch of Chinese app Zao), and after Star Wars started experimenting with the technology (spoilers, if you haven’t seen Rogue One) – it was only a matter of time before someone brought an erstwhile actor back from the dead in a major role.

The thinking behind this is pretty clear, and is hard to argue with: how are up-and-coming actors supposed to make a living if they’re suddenly competing with the established film stars not only of this age, but of every age?

Given that his early death left his fans deprived of the future films they felt they deserved, and inflicted arguably decades of lost earnings on his family, who’s to say it’s wrong to use the technology available to try to rectify this?

It’s not like we, as a society, are totally against the concept of the artists of the past continuing to draw crowds and even, if they hail from the more recent past, make money (hence the 70-year copyright rule).

The creative world is a competition for attention – the human population only has so many hours in their collective days – so, inevitably, any attention given to the creativity of the past leaves less available for the creativity of the present.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just valuing and reliving the classics – it’s taking a piece of art we’d otherwise expect to be contemporary (with the knock-on economic effects of people working hard today getting paid), and replacing a contemporary producer of that art with a producer from the past.

There are other things, like writing new music and lyrics, which will be important parts of this balance of power between contemporary and past artists, and I’ll come onto them later – but all that’s really needed for a new Frank Sinatra record is his voice.

It works by taking the speech created using an electrolarynx – an external medical device that produces mechanical vibrations, which the paper reports produces very intelligible but unnatural-sounding speech – and converting this to a singing voice using, among other things, deep neural networks.

But what’s to stop this same technology being combined with existing speech replication systems (remember this fake Obama speech?) to recreate the singing voices of the pop stars of the past?

Everyone I spoke to there said this proportion is growing every year – which is particularly notable given that, if you think about, it’s not totally clear that music generation should fall under the umbrella of ‘music information retrieval’ at all.

But when artists from the past release new albums, it’s the asset that is valuable – the person who holds the rights to the artist’s likeness, the artist’s voice, is the beneficiary of the income.

Writing is a waste of time? Discuss.

I imagine someday, someone, somewhere will pay for my writing and I’ll be in the promised land of earning a living from writing.

Anyone that’s being paying  attention to the rise and rise of artificial intelligence (AI) knows how the world is going to change.

AI or pattern-recognition software will be our doctors and nurses our servants and masters a tax on humanity with profits going to the offshored wealthy.

I was aware that AI was already performing simple tasks such as writing obituaries and sport columns for mainstream media.

‘Go’ the board game that seemed to rely on intuition rather than logic seemed a step to far, but the best players in the world were swatted aside by machine learning.

The myth of the writer in the attic (although I do sit in a cupboard) pondering and pouring out hard copy is hard cheese.

The slog of writing remain much the same, but the chances of being published and making a writing from living are pretty much gubbed.

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