To call Ash Koosha a multi-disciplinary artist is an understatement. In the past decade alone, he has been in a rock band; created, soundtracked, and starred in an award-winning film; released an album on Ninja Tune; used VR technology to perform in the US; and founded KOIZ Limited, a start-up working on spatial computing and A.I. At the core of all this is Ash Koosha the philosopher, and his boundary-pushing experiments with the relationship between the entities of the physical world and their virtual counterparts.
“I’m a radical technologist. I might dismiss some emotional facts about expression,” admits Ash Koosha when I sit down with him for lunch in London. Koosha has lived a life in tandem with technology since his parents bought him a Commodore 64 when he was 8 years old. His latest project, Yona, is an “auxiliary human” that uses a complex text-to-speech process to convert the generative software she is comprised of into human-sounding singing. In her current state, Yona is still very obviously a machine, but Koosha’s ultimate aim is to get to a point where you won’t be able to tell if the voice is human or computer-generated. “The goal is to replicate the voice of a pop singer," he explains. "My hypothesis is that singers will become redundant, because this machine will be able to convey every range of the human voice — an anti-pop manifesto of sorts.”
From Koosha's perspective, Yona is the logical extension of a music industry in which music is formulaically created. “That's the very basis of pop songs — relying on the easiest, most commonly known formula to express a feeling to the masses," he says. "This is where the very basic notion of human and machine merging will come true. My work uses music as an example, but in futurology studies, we always say there's going to be a point where we merge with machines one way or the other. We're on the way there — there's no question about it.”
His collaboration with Yona has resulted in Return 0, Ash’s upcoming album which will be released on his new label Realms next month. “It's a line of code,” he explains regarding the album's title, “a success status that means the program worked fine. I feel that applies to my own personal situation as well — I'm the program, and I worked fine.” The record paints a picture of a future world that's both haunting and hopeful in equal measure, tying into Koosha’s beliefs as a “software humanist” — essentially, someone that believes robots should and will benefit the human race in the next chapter of civilization. Whether you’re skeptical or not, read on for our discussion of his new record, technophobia, and a brand-new video for the single "Return 0."
What is an aux-human, and what made you want to create one?
It's a replica of a specific characteristic of a human that will be used as a supplement in certain processes. If I'm making music as a producer, I need a singer — that's one specific function of a human that we can replicate into a system and use for production. In a sense, it's very narrow artificial intelligence: one function is performed by a machine, and we collaborate with it as if it's a human. When you go to a studio to work with a singer, you end up with lyrics, a melody, and a voice. I tried to make these three elements without having a singer involved.
I've always implemented computer technology in what I do, and I realised I was giving more access than I wanted to the random aspect of what software can give you. There was also this idea of "generative music," like Brian Eno's experiments with long pieces that would generate themselves for hours. My problem with that is that it’s taking the computer as a separate entity and thinking that it's gonna make music itself. Why not get rid of the idea that the computer's self-aware and actually try to implement the smallest bits of randomization using whatever technologies we have access to? Humans are best at taste because we have intention in finalizing and presenting something. The computer can create arpeggios and melodies — parts that I don’t necessarily want to spend time on.
Do you think music will eventually be made by machines?
It already is! If you buy Ableton, you rely so much on the interface that you're already giving in to the machine's workflow. The branding of music is also automated and PR-oriented: you have a story, an image, and the piece of music itself. Why not find patterns in all these stages, see if they can be formulated, and automate them to save time? So many producers are like, "I wanna take one year to produce a record." You could do that — or potentially you could make eight records in a year!
Are you pro man-machine collaboration?
Yes, but there are a lot of issues to be looked at. One is to know what artificial intelligence means as a field of study, and how we should look at it. The popular public idea is that there's gonna be a Skynet scenario and where we're gonna be overruled by all these robots, which is — I hate to use this term — fake news, and very lazy thinking. We love the horror of everything instead of looking at the core problems we face in those fears. AI is just a field of studies for now. There's no such thing as a general system that learns, has intentions and agency — that's far away.
Do you think the public imagination is rooted in technophobia?
I blame it on lazy writing in Hollywood — a shock factor that exists in movies, books, and even politics and social studies. Think about The Handmaid's Tale: it's so scary, and when you watch it you wake up, look outside, and feel terrified about the world. Horror has always done that, which is fine, but when it comes to real issues, I have a problem with that. With artificial intelligence, we're actually on the side of progress. Why do we immediately connect the idea of technology with bad clichés? What about all of these heroic moments in history — what happened to Ebola? That's technology, a lot of people working to fix something.
There's a filter of lazy criticism and cynicism at this moment in human civilization. The only industry that has any hope to save civilization in the next 50 years is the technology industry. Any old way of thinking in any industry is going to be the drag. We're getting to the stage in our society where you either think forward or backward — there's nothing in between. We're changing shift, and it's gonna hurt a bit.
“Why do we immediately connect the idea of technology with bad clichés?” —Ash Koosha
The album sounds cinematic. Did your soundtracking work influence it at all?
I always remember music with scenery. I put music on, look at things and make sense of it. Life has a soundtrack — a situation with full sensory stimulation.
What did you see when you were making these songs?
Mostly my own memories. Over the last ten or fifteen years, there have been a lot of ups and downs, nonsensical and silver moments. This record is a closing of a project — the project is me, and this chapter of my life. Whilst I was developing this project, there was so much other stuff going on, and that affected the scenery of this record.
In terms of A.I. in the public imagination versus reality, what's the biggest disconnect?
There hasn't been a tangible product where you can say, "Okay, this is AI." Everything is behind the scenes so that we don't sense it. Just talking about AI means that we're starting to have conversations about it. Computation-power is still limited, but that will change in a way that we will feel on our devices soon.
Have you seen Her?
That's a very good representation of where I think we're going. I liked the disappointment of the protagonist at the end — the reality that it’s not supposed to be a real person.
So you don't think Sophia the Robot is going to come alive and strangle us?
Why would a robot do that? We've always had the idea that, one day, the computer is gonna wake up and kill us all — but there are so many stages before we get there. There's no real, human intelligence with computers — these are complex computations, it's all syntax. There are no semantics or intention. Over time, the real danger of artificial intelligence has been diverted by sci-fi into anthropomorphized versions of a machine, or a robot that feels things — which is ridiculous.
What do you think of the human-machine future represented in Blade Runner?
Blade Runner was a scenario where scientists, throughout their years of research, apparently didn't think "Maybe not." It was alarming back then, but that film doesn't apply any more. The new one was unsuccessful because it was an ‘80s problem. Her is more contemporary: we know it's happening, the range is narrow, it's a fabrication of human emotion. How do we react to that interaction?
Maybe the dystopian future is how alone we will become.
I don't agree. If we merge with machines more, we will be more connected. A world that has [Her's machine] Samantha means that we are already far more connected. Do I speak to people more than I did ten years ago? Yes! Because it's easier to do so.