The venue is packed with excitement, a sea of green glowsticks wave in the air, and all eyes are on the stage. The light intensifies, as the star of the show materialises, literally beamed in from another dimension. It’s the crispest of illusions and shouldn’t make sense, but when the crowd goes nuts and sings along to the nonsensical words, “Miku Miku, ni shite ageru”, everything is in its right place.
Since her inception in 2007, Japanese vocal synthesizer software Hatsune Miku has been more than just been a musical phenomenon in her native country. The forever-16 vocaloid idol has seen English and Chinese versions of her voicebank spread to more potential producers around the world (adding to a song library that’s already over 100,000), while her live show Miku Expo has toured in Asia, the Americas, and – for the first time this year – in Europe.
Coincidentally, just the week before the European leg of the digital singer’s tour, human pop star Grimes also made her long-awaited comeback with AI propaganda anthem ‘We Appreciate Power’. All this might have you thinking that pop music is the pied piper leading us all on a merry dance towards the singularity.
It’s certainly a long way away from the nightmare fuel we once had of technology either destroying of enslaving us.
Of course, we can all agree that technology has done a lot to improve our lives. After all, the smartphone, tablet, or computer you’re reading this on, delivered by the Internet, none of that would be possible without the technological advancements of the past few decades.
Even so, it’s not been without growing pains and anxieties, which have persisted since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s that drastically changed the way people worked and lived. This same period gave rise to the Luddites, an organisation of skilled textile workers who saw automated machines handled by cheaper and less skilled workers as a threat on their livelihoods. Smashing up equipment and burning down mills was their way of opposing this tide.
If the working classes of that era feared machines replacing their livelihoods, then Hollywood sci-fi films of the 1980s and 1990s illustrated how machines could ultimately replace us.
In The Terminator, the overarching villain is Skynet, a military computer system that gains self-awareness. By the time its creators realise what they have done and try to shut it down, it’s already too late. In an act of self-preservation, the AI would initiate nuclear war in its bid to exterminate humanity. Meanwhile, the sentient machines of The Matrix turn us into their power source like human-sized batteries while keeping us subdued inside a simulation of the real world.
Yet both dystopian visions feel like they belong to another age. There’s been a cultural shift where we’ve let go of our anxiety towards technology and instead become more readily entwined with it than ever.
Perhaps we have Japan’s influence to thank for this.
For one, Shinto, the Japanese national religion, shares the animist belief that spirits exist not just in humans but in all things, from animals, to inanimate objects. As such, the Japanese can easily attribute a soul to anything, from robots, cuddly mascots, or indeed a vocal synthesizer personified by an anime schoolgirl. And of course, these ideas spread to Japan’s most beloved cultural exports: video games and anime.
Once you’ve seen the sweet Astroboy or adorable blue robo-cat Doraemon, the way the Japanese think of machines is a huge contrast to the faceless and malevolent manifestations in Hollywood’s past.
From Dr. Slump’s Arale, a robot made to resemble a 13-year old girl, to Persona 3’s Aigis, who fights Shadows by night but attends the same high school as her party members, the androids of Japanese media take on more human qualities, not because they’re creepy doppelgängers, but because they’re meant to co-exist with us. When even humanity has long left Earth, the androids of NieR: Automata fight on in our memory, inheriting our emotional traits and personalities in the process.
Cynics might dismiss the influence of anime as too niche in the West, but if anything, its reach and impact is bigger than ever, certainly more than the days you had to order VHS tapes (remember those?) from a specialist company. After all, it doesn’t get more mainstream than Netflix, who have acquired the global streaming license for Neon Genesis Evangelion, arguably the greatest mecha anime of all time.
— NX (@NXOnNetflix) November 27, 2018
Human After All
Likewise, our attitudes towards sentient machines has become more about empathising with them. Essentially, we see them more like us, made in man’s image.
Just compare HBO’s Westworld with the original 1973 film where malfunctioning android Yul Brynner went on a killing spree. Now we’re spending our time exploring the inner lives of these hosts, empathising with their exploitation and abuse at the hands of their human creators and newcomers. By the time the switch flips, we’re more likely finding ourselves on the android’s side.
In essence, we’ve learned from Japanese culture, and that’s not counting the questionable Hollywood adaptations. Our sci-fi frequently asks us to examine machines just like we do with the human condition, be it Ex Machina or Detroit: Become Human.
Of course, lest we get carried away, Hatsune Miku isn’t an autonomous AI writing her own songs. She’s still ultimately software, a tool for others to create rapturous and catchy pop tunes with, or indeed anything else they can put their imagination to – she’s essentially a pigtailed vessel through which our feelings are expressed.
Miku Expo then isn’t about kids paying money to watch a hologram sing and dance a predetermined setlist. Rather, it’s a celebration of her persona, as created and collaborated by her most talented fans, from the mocapped dance animations, the costumes, to of course the songs, interpreted beautifully by the live band, and complete with the adoring crowd packing the halls, all coming together to magically will Miku into life for just one evening. It’s an act of pop alchemy, but under the elaborate light show, it’s all human after all.
What will it take to make you capitulate?
But perhaps more than just anthropomorphically identifying with AI, maybe we’re simply comfortable with just how convenient they are. This is largely thanks to virtual assistants casually settling into our lives at work and home, estimated to be frequently used by 1 billion people worldwide.
The Cortana that accompanied Master Chief’s journey in Halo back in 2001 is no longer just the domain of a fictional video game but Microsoft’s own helpful and friendly AI, rivalling or – in Alexa’s case – complementing other advanced virtual assistants.
It’s not just that they’re efficient with getting things done for us but, unlike the eerie monotone of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, they sound more approachable and conversational, even – dare we say it – human. Google’s new Duplex voice assistant truly goes to the latter’s extent by having its AI being able to call real businesses and mimic the ‘um’ and ‘ah’ of realistic human speech.
Of course, our old paranoid technophobia may also creep up on us thinking, is this too good to be true? Could Alexa’s pleasant tones all just be a part of a charm offensive luring us into a false sense of security, while pop’s most infectious cheerleaders sway us with their sweet melodies as we embrace our new AI overlords?
Maybe this is what it’s like to finally love the Big Brother of 1984, and willingly ‘submit’ and ‘appreciate the power’ that Grimes sings of. If that’s the case, then we might also be too happily waving our glowsticks in the air to notice.