Music As Communicative Medium

While listening to an audiobook on music history I was exposed to the idea that the Romantic artists believed that music was the highest form of aesthetic expression because it acted directly on the mind without the intermediary steps of words or images.

This was an idea I have been struggling to formulate, and I think it could use a little fleshing out.

Here’s where I’m at:

(1) Considered within the space of possible general communicative media (think: language, mathematics, the visual arts[1]) music is  very high BANDWIDTH. It can download emotions like despair or exultation, which are surely many gigabytes in size, directly into your consciousness.

(2) But music is a very low RESOLUTION medium for all that[1]. It can only make large transfers as complete wholes. It can’t do things like proofs[2], and even something like ‘symphonie fantastique’, which tells a story, can only do so in broad strokes and only with the help of words to communicate the narrative.

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[1] I took pains to point out that my analysis is of music compared to all other information-transfer media. A friend pointed out that if it is considered solely as an emotional medium then it is both high bandwidth and high resolution.

[2] Though there is actually at least one attempt to do that; See: David Stutz.

The Kasparov Window

The world is a buzz with discussion of Google’s AlphaGo program beating Korean Go player Lee Sedol, considered by many to be one of the best players on Earth, in the first three matches they played. Lee was able to take the fourth match, however, by deliberately playing lower probability moves that managed to confuse the AI.

In a facebook post Eliezer Yudkowsky coined the term “Kasparov Window” to describe a range of systems with superhuman abilities that nevertheless have flaws that human players can discover and exploit. Pondering this concept, I had a different idea:

Say you had a way of measuring how “unintuitive” a given move is for a human player. That is, if a move is minimally unintuitive it can reasonably be assumed that even a novice player would make it in the same situation, and if a move is maximally unintuitive it can be reasonably assumed that not even an expert player would make the move in the same situation.

Using this measure, might it be possible to calibrate AI systems to gradually introduce more and more unintuitive moves into a game? If so, it seems like you might be able to train the best human players to become even better by getting them to think way outside the box.

And if you used a similar technique with something like an automated theorem prover, you might also be able to get skilled human mathematicians to produce proofs that a human normally wouldn’t be able to produce because such a proof simply wouldn’t occur to them.

One problem with these scenarios is that it may be feasible to train humans in this way but it may just not be possible to extend the range of what counts as “intuitive for a human” very far. So, Lee Sedol learns to make some unintuitive moves but the quality of his gameplay only increases very slightly.

Another problem is that the training may turn out to be feasible, but AI technology simply progresses so rapidly that there just isn’t any point.

Chords and Colors

I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia ever since it occurred to me that not everyone’s  senses are as promiscuous as mine.  It’s always been very visual for me. Sounds, letters, ideas, and tastes often present themselves with colors, textures, shapes, and sizes when I think about them.

I don’t experience synesthesia out-in-the-world, only in my head. In other words, when I read a book the letters on the page don’t have any color, but if I think about a letter, or listen to a song, very often it’ll have a color or a size. This happens most strongly with music, generally speaking.

But I also remember that I almost got in trouble around the age of 3 or so because I was explaining to an older girl what size and shape various swear words were

This also seems to be rooted pretty deeply in my thought process, and has fueled my poetry and music (more on that later). It’s very difficult to watch your own mind think, but I’ve noticed that a small percentage of my thought is a stream of incomplete sentences and a bigger part is images related to those sentences. Another significant chunk, however, is just weird shapes moving and changing and banging into each other. I might be trying to think about something like “justice” or “anarchy” or “rationality”, and what I see is a strange chalky prism morphing into a sphere and then shooting off to the right, leaving a colorful trail of liquid smoke. It doesn’t make any sense, but I just somehow know that what I’m seeing is a thought related to justice.

It’s like the machine language of my mind is a polychromatic rainbow, and there is a synesthetic compiler in my unconscious which has to paint speech and thoughts before my brain can do anything with them.

This is kind of crazy when I think about it. My sentences come out orderly, but between my ears it looks like Jimi Hendrix, Walt Disney, and Wassily Kandisky are locked in a room with painting supplies and the collected works of Euclid, trying to make a video game together.