Peter Gabriel on the future of AI: 'We might as well just grab the algorithms and dance with them, rather than fight them'
With his tech company Reverberation, the visionary artist hopes to "do all sorts of extraordinary things, including perhaps — and I do say 'perhaps' — protecting our future."
“Many years ago, [Genesis] did a show called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and my plan for the beginning was to take brain and body readings from each member of the band and turn them into music. It was 1974, and the technology wasn’t yet able to deliver what I imagined. Today, it’s all there — and more,” pioneering musician, producer, and activist Peter Gabriel writes in the introduction to the new guidebook Reverberation: Do Everything Better With Music. “If we choose, we can all become the creators of our own self-generated sound and light show, which, using some smart AI, we could learn to design ourselves to serve our needs at any time. Bringing AI into the musical mix will allow us to turn our own brain activity in the self-generated music: less deejay, more ‘me’-jay.”
Almost 50 years later, the future that Gabriel envisioned is becoming more of a reality. And unlike many of his boomer peers who reject new technology, the 73-year-old artist (as evidenced by his Reverberation foreword, in which says “we are entering an age of big changes” and “extraordinary things are happening as this new frontier opens up”) is still embracing all of it — albeit with some necessary, healthy trepidation.
“In the ‘70s, there were people starting to experiment with biofeedback. … But the equipment wasn't there [yet]. It is definitely is now. And there's a lot of cool AI stuff, which is just about to turn our lives upside-down. But that's another story,” Gabriel tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I'm probably just as scared [of AI] as everybody else, but I like to jump in the river rather than talk about it. … I do think about it quite a lot, and I think not enough people are thinking about it. And it would be great to get ahead [of it]. You know, this is something that's going have way more impact than the Industrial Revolution and the nuclear bomb. So, if we don't start anticipating what it might do, it's going to be too late, because it's very fast.”
Yahoo Entertainment of course asks Gabriel to elaborate — specifically, if he’s concerned that artificial intelligence will soon put him and other living, breathing musicians out of work. Surely some robot could never create a song as brilliant and heartfelt as the Kate Bush duet “Don’t Give Up” (which Elton John has credited with helping him get sober) or the iconic Say Anything soundtrack song “In Your Eyes,” right?
“Most people argue no; I would say they just need better algorithms,” Gabriel answers with a chuckle. “Some would argue [that you can’t replace] the [human] spirit — but I think there are probably going to be algorithms for the spirit, too! So, we might as well just grab the algorithms and dance with them, rather than fight them. … Unfortunately, I don't think my job or anyone's job is safe from AI. The way to look at it, though, is this amazing toolkit is just coming into our possession and we could do all sorts of extraordinary things, including perhaps — and I do say ‘perhaps’ — protecting our future.
“It's like the King Canute and the waves,” Gabriel continues matter-of-factly. “We have that story that he tried to hold back the tide by using his kingly powers: The tide won. The same is true of AI. It's coming whether we like it or not, so we might as well try and work with it rather than work against it, and make sure that there are programs in there that protect ethics and some sort of morality. Because I remember — and this is 20 years ago — I was at a session with these military chiefs and someone was asked, ‘OK, we're getting into the robot battlefield; how long will a human last?’ And they said, ‘By present calculations, 18 seconds!’ And there is this idea that if we try to find intelligent life on other planets, that when an intelligent species is so smart that it can destroy itself, it very often does. I hope we don't fall into that trap, but we can have a wonderful party on the way to jumping over the cliff.”
Reverberation, a new “brain-on-music” entertainment, media, and tech studio founded by Gabriel, entrepreneur Michael Hermann, and Peter’s daughter, filmmaker/photographer Anna Gabriel, might help solve this modern dilemma. Hermann explains, “A big part of these musical interventions that we're trying to explore, with pioneering researchers [24 of which were interviewed for Reverberation: Do Everything Better With Music] are around AI — basically taking not only music that could be created, but existing music, to put it to work for caregivers, for dementia patients, but also for more practical reasons like increasing focus, increasing leadership in the workplace, increasing and building creative teams. A lot of this is going to be AI-forward, and we're doing our best to stay ahead of that conversation.”
“There's an interesting Chomsky article in the New York Times [“The False Prophet of ChatGPT”] if you want to dig down there — but I don't agree with him, and I think we've got some of the really smart AI people in London at the moment and they're seriously worried. But in the meantime, we can get mass sort of healthcare advice, including some of what we're trying to do here,” adds Peter optimistically. “Electricity, electromagnetic fields… consumer electronics will get high-tech healthcare into the hands of billions of people. And then, education: the best teachers, the best teaching. In the same way that industrialization brought everyone together, this new personalized, AI-powered revolution will allow it all to be designed for us individually. And hopefully that might, if it's done well, [have] the potential to make a fairer world.”
The first project from Hermann and the Gabriels’ tech company is Reverberation: Do Everything Better With Music, written by veteran Maxim/Rolling Stone journalist and former World Science Festival chief digital officer Keith Blanchard, which Anna says is designed to be “something you can flip through and use as a guide to on how to use music, how music can change us and affect our brains.” Firmly rooted in “science, science, science,” as Hermann puts it, but “with all of our collective artistry laid on top of it” and simple enough for the even most daunted layperson to understand, Reverberation serves as the music fan’s handy guide to increasingly complex modern life. “The book was literally and physically engineered, inside and out, to be carried with you, to put in your backpack, in your purse, in your satchel, in your pocket,” says Hermann.
As Peter writes in his Reverberation foreword: “We all have different ways of interacting with music, and for many of us, listening is just something we do without a lot of thought, like breathing. But if we can start to understand this mercurial stuff called music a bit better, it might give us a powerful toolkit to deploy whenever and however it is needed — music as medicine, as educator, as therapist. This book is not going to provide all the answers, but I hope it will allow us to ask better questions.”
All of this is obviously just one component of a larger vision for Peter, who in September will embark on his first tour since 2014, playing songs from upcoming 10th studio album, i/o (his first album since 2011, which he has actually been working on since 2002). He says he’s “still trying to explore” his 1974 idea of a biofeedback-powered concert, during which he would “get three outputs from each musician — one, their music; two, their body; three, their brain — and those could control the images. So, for instance, there's one song, we may have people's faces like the hall of mirrors at the fairground, and we could have big notes that stretch their faces or fatten them. Or if they're thinking deep thoughts, maybe they fade away and become more ghost-like or spirit-like. … You would measure whether they're leaving sort of a beta state and going into alpha gamma waves, or whatever.”
Peter also reveals that he’s still “trying to work towards a brain show,” explaining, “Before I met Michael and Keith, I was working on a show about the brain, which is another slow-burner that will, I hope, find its place moving forward. So, certainly the scientists that I met through this [Reverberation research] are going to help inform how I develop that project. And there are one or two of the songs on this record [i/o] that will relate to that.”
In the meantime, there’s Reverberation: Do Everything Better With Music. The book is divided into digestible, actionable, goal-oriented chapters — thus, in brainstorming session, so to speak, Yahoo Entertainment asks Peter to assign his own songs for the book’s sections. For the “Relax” chapter, he suggests his “meditative” 2000 instrumental “The Nest That Sailed the Sky” or Passion: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ; for the makeout-playlist-themed “Love,” he shrugs, “I mean, ‘In Your Eyes’ seems to have that effect for people”; and for “Thrive,” a workout/fitness chapter, Yahoo Entertainment helpfully suggests his 152-BPM banger “Shock the Monkey.” The company and book’s core idea is that music can heal — which frankly, makes a strong case for the art form’s enduring human element, despite Peter’s pragmatic and realistic attitude towards AI.
“The two songs [of mine] that I’ve gotten a lot of letters about were ‘Don't Give Up’ and ‘Biko,’” Peter muses, when asked about his compositions that have helped and healed listeners the most. “You never anticipate that, and it's very humbling when someone says, ‘I decided not to kill myself because I just kept this song on repetition.’ You don't have any idea when you set out in your little paper boat that it going to land on some of those places. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s roundtable with Peter and Anna Gabriel, Michael Hermann, and Keith Blanchard above, in which they discuss Reverberation’s mission statement and the impact of music on the human brain.
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