While some of the elements featured in this episode may on the surface appear to be a little far-fetched, as you will see through reading on a lot of this technology is already being trialed in some capacity...
Today I’m dissecting elements of the final episode in the latest series of Black Mirror, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too". It was nice to see the sci-fi anthology series turn its hand to exploring technology that could play a huge part in shaping the music industry in the near future. While some of the elements featured in this episode may on the surface appear to be a little far-fetched, as you will see through reading on a lot of this technology is already being trialed in some capacity.
WARNING: This article makes several references to the plot from the outset and contains spoilers. I would advise watching the episode before reading on.
Ashley O Composing Music In Her Dreams
After pop superstar, Ashley O’s (Miley Cyrus) manager Catherine laces her food with powdered drugs causing her to go into a coma, the management team seeks ways to extract new songs from her brain with the view of releasing an album. Using a device referred to as a temporal interceptor they discovered that she was composing music in her dreams, which were then extracted as musical notes to form melodies.
While the concept of composing songs in our thoughts and having them transferred into permanent form in real time is some way off, scientists believe that this will be possible and are already making advances in the field. By analyzing fMRI scans, (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) computers can now identify what songs you’ve listened to just by looking at your brain scans.
In a recent study, six volunteers were played 40 pieces of music from a variety of genres while their brain activity was measured. Following this, the computer had to compare two different scans and guess which song they had heard, achieving this with 85% accuracy. This doesn't seem particularly groundbreaking given that it had a 50% chance of being correct, however, when it had to choose between 10 different songs it achieved an impressive 74% accuracy.
The research into this concept doesn’t stop there. McGill University cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin invited Sting to have his brain scanned while he attempted to compose a song. Researchers were able to spot patterns in his brain activity, particularly noting how finely attuned it was to keeping track of tempo, pitch and different genres.
Does this mean that this depiction in "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" is accurate? Excitingly yes, it is very conceivable that in the future artists could compose music in their dreams and have it extracted into permanent form. While I’m not sure how many musicians would like the idea of sleeping with a helmet on their head every night it would stop that frustration of waking up knowing you’ve dreamed up a great hook and can infuriatingly no longer remember it.
More importantly, this potential breakthrough holds greater scientific significance for those who can’t communicate. Those who suffer from locked-in syndrome or are in a coma could potentially have a new communication channel to connect with their loved ones, something which would be incredibly powerful and life-changing for many families.
"Ashley Eternal" - The Brand New, Yet Familiar Superstar
Once Ashley O’s management team were able to extract melodies using the temporal interceptor the next task was to translate those notes and lyrics into a song with her own vocals. Fortunately, in this case, they had launched a product around six months earlier that happened to be an AI robot doll based on her personality, "Ashley Too". For this product, they had to record 100 of hours of Ashley’s voice, including every vowel and every syllable used in the AI dolls. Using the vocal mimicry software contained in the dolls they were able to give Ashley a voice, "just like the real thing", as Ashley’s manager Catherine explains in the episode.
What’s more interesting in the case of this story is what this technology breakthrough can potentially develop into. Towards the end of the episode, Catherine demos "Ashley Eternal" to potential investors and journalists, wowing them with the prospect of having a photo-realistic, fully controllable and fully scalable hologram superstar that can perform anywhere at any time.
Catherine ends the presentation with: "It’s not a dream, it’s reality" and that certainly is the case in the music industry today. For the past decade, a Japanese hologram pop star has been selling out arenas across the world. Hatsune Miku is a humanoid persona voice from a singing synthesizer application. Miku is designed to be a 16-year-old girl with long, turquoise twin tails. She uses Yamaha Corporation’s Vocaloid 2, Vocaloid 3 and Vocaloid 4 singing synthesizing technologies. Like "Ashley Eternal", Miku can perform a whole nationwide tour all taking place on the same night, never exhausted, never sick, always pitch perfect bringing her A-game.
Turning attention back to real-life musician holograms, the interest in bringing artists back to life to perform on stage again has long been a novelty that has split opinion but could soon turn into a very popular, very lucrative concept. The productions you have likely heard of and seen in the past featuring the likes of Michael Jackson, Tupac and Whitney Houston are 2D video projections where light bounces off a mirror, creating an illusion. These performances were pre-recorded and one-off events.
These resurrected artists will soon be able to embark on simultaneous worldwide tours, just like what was planned for Ashley O. As technology advances they will be able to create more accurate, 3D holograms making it feel as if they were there at the moment, emphasized by the future ability to work in live reactions towards the crowd and conversational exchanges. A scary and ethically challenging thought this may be but a seemingly inevitable one at that.
If you’re wondering whether this will really catch on it seems incredibly likely that the concept is going to be worth the investment. Many will object and won’t partake but there are also millions of fans who would jump at the chance to see their heroes from days gone by up on stage again, all be it in rather unusual, unnatural circumstances. It will also be a lot cheaper for fans to buy tickets for these shows, something which living artists could exploit through night clubs and events 'appearances'. The opportunities are numerous, hence why Ashley O’s manager Catherine was so desperate to make it happen, by any means necessary…
Many of Black Mirror’s storylines are set in a future far from now but with "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too" we have an episode where everything feels quite familiar. Charlie Brooker and Anne Sewitsky explore our relationships with technology and the future of artist to fan engagement, preying on our fears and challenging us to think about the implications of a celebrity personality-based Alexa and the convenience of hologram pop stars. After all, it’s not a dream, it’s reality.