Published on 22 June 2023
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What The Beatles can teach us about AI

As headlines report The Beatles used artificial intelligence to create a new song featuring John Lennon's voice, Verity Harding says the international frenzy shows just how unprepared we are for the new technological age.

In November 1995, shortly after my 12th birthday, I developed a case of Beatlemania. In many ways, it was 30 years too late. The Beatles had broken up long ago, John Lennon had been murdered before I was even born. But in other ways, the Beatles were only just getting started. The reason for my sudden onset Beatlemania was the Anthology project, which reunited Paul, George and Ringo after decades of acrimonious business dealings, infighting and litigation. The Anthology – a new book, documentary and trio of albums with unreleased material (“and somewhere down the line it will probably be a t-shirt,” joked George)  – brought the Threetles together again for a public, which as it turned out, was just as Beatle mad as ever. And a new generation of fans was born. So I experienced the band almost as a young girl in the Sixties would have done: watching, via the documentary, a black and white clip of these bright, handsome, sparkling young men performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was instantly smitten. 

The Anthology project was a huge success. The documentary drew millions of viewers and the sumptuous book went straight to the top of the bestseller lists. But best of all were the albums. Three of them, all with unreleased material including early demos of Strawberry Fields Forever and In Spite of All the Danger, an early recording of the Quarry Men from the Fifties. Excitingly, there was new material. Actual, new Beatles material for me, deep in my new obsession in the Nineties, to enjoy. Two new songs were built upon John’s home recordings, a set of which Yoko Ono had given over to Paul, with her blessing that they be enhanced, and ultimately released as the first new Beatles music in decades. Paul had to imagine that John had just popped out for lunch and asked him to finish the song, just to cope with the enormity of the task and, one expects, with the emotion. 

I remember listening to the haunting ‘Free As A Bird’, a beautiful song with a shy John vocal lead, with my mum in the car, as she explained all about John and his death. I was bereft (I still am) but this was magic. Listening to it today I remain as moved as ever, especially when Paul comes in with his own lyrics to complete one section. Lennon had sung: “Whatever happened to, the life that we once knew?” and McCartney, 30 years later, sang back, with new, aching significance. How can we ever live without each other?” It was a generous, wonderful gift to their fans. There was another one, too, ‘Real Love’, which I also adored. 

There should have been a third, ‘Now and Then’. Each of the three new Anthology albums was supposed to open with a new song, based on the Lennon home tapes. But they couldn’t agree on the last one. Perhaps tempers were fraying after being back together after so long apart, but when it came to the third, George vetoed it, calling it “rubbish.” But, given the extra deep and meaningful creative and personal partnership he had had with John, Paul always promised he would one day finish the song.

Last week on BBC’s Today Programme we got a clue that McCartney may have finally fulfilled his promise. He told Martha Kearney that he and Starr, the only two remaining after George’s passing in 2001, had finally finished what he called ‘the last Beatles song’. We don’t know for sure, but hardcore fans hope it will be ‘Now and Then’. It was an astonishing announcement to so casually chuck into an interview about his new book, but then Paul is the king of understatement. (“A great little rock and roll band” he often calls the most important cultural event of the 20th century). 

And yet, despite the enormity of the news (the last ever Beatles song) all the headlines focussed on another thing Paul mentioned. Namely, that The Beatles had used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to aid with John’s voice. The story shot around the world, combining two of my areas of expertise, the Beatles and AI, showing just how unprepared we are for the new technological age.

The use of AI by the Beatles isn’t in fact new. In 2021 the magnificent ‘Get Back’ documentary was released with shockingly good audio quality thanks to a bespoke AI de-mixing technology that the director Peter Jackson had developed. Using this same technology, Jackson was able to isolate John’s vocals from the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance – their last ever for a live audience – so that Paul could ‘duet’ with John again, which he did last summer during his Glastonbury headliner set as hundreds of thousands watched on, some shedding a tear at the poignancy of it – or was that just me? Jackson then lent this tech to Giles Martin (son of George, the Beatles’ legendary producer) for the reissue of the 1966 Revolver album last year. The younger Martin spoke about it extensively at the time, describing it as a technique that was akin to being able to extract the eggs, flour and butter from a fully baked cake. 

But for all the headlines after Paul’s latest announcement, you’d have thought that the Beatles were suddenly using AI to create a new song, perhaps even recreate John’s voice. ‘Paul McCartney using AI to release new song with the late John Lennon’ read one. ‘AI used to create new and final Beatles song’ said another. There has been a trend lately on YouTube where fans have been using generative AI to make John sing one of Paul’s songs, to take Paul’s older voice and make it sound young again, to get Oasis performing a Beatles song and vice versa. The assumption was that this is what was happening now, officially, and fans expressed their dismay online that the memory of John and the best band in the world might be sullied. 

“Why is Paul McCartney turning John Lennon into an AI model for an ‘unreleased’ song based on demo tapes??” a Twitter user by the name of Smooth Cat demanded of Sean Ono Lennon, John’s son and the guardian of his estate. “Are you OK with this? Did you reach out??” Overlooking the absurdity of a situation where Paul would have gone ahead and done this without the other Apple Corp board members knowing, Sean politely replied that this was not actually happening. “All we did was clean the noise from the vocal track.” This has been possible for years, but AI just does it more precisely, he said. “People are completely misunderstanding what occurred.”

They are indeed. And not just when it comes to AI and the Beatles. On a much wider scale, and with higher stakes involved, people are muddling up what AI might be able to do, and what it is actually doing. Recent remarkable achievements in computer science for example – from ChatGPT to AlphaZero – have led some people to extrapolate forward to increasingly outlandish scenarios. One influential AI researcher, for example, wrote in Time magazine: “If somebody builds a too-powerful AI, under present conditions, I expect that every single member of the human species and all biological life on Earth dies shortly thereafter.” Wow. It’s a big jump from where we are today to total human extinction. But the author, Eliezer Yudkowsky, was far from an outlier. Not long after, a statement calling for the risk of AI extinction to be made a global priority alongside nuclear war and pandemics attracted the signatures of a great many respected AI leaders.

I have written elsewhere about why I think that this kind of overstatement is unhelpful, so I won’t go into it here. (TLDR; Some research into mass death caused by AI? Sure. Making it a priority alongside nuclear war and pandemics, after the deaths of millions caused by Covid-19 and the looming threats from a nuclear power currently very much at actual war in Ukraine? I am dubious.) 

There is a reason that Paul McCartney’s comments about his use of AI garnered so much more attention in 2023, when it passed most people by in 2021 and 2022. That reason is not a deeper understanding of the technology nor a more nuanced information landscape. It is a frenzy around any mention of AI, yes, and also perhaps a search for proof that it really is spinning out of control. It’s even affecting such an institution as the Beatles! What next? The two phenomena – confused reporting about a new Beatles song and the chance of AI-driven extinction  – are in fact linked. Both show us just how unprepared we are to tackle the real harms and to embrace the real opportunities, of AI. 

The fevered reporting around the Beatles’ use of AI illustrates well the serious issue that a lack of public understanding of AI systems and capabilities affords a disproportionate voice to those who claim to be expert, even if that does not reliably relay to the wider populace what is actually realistic. The reason that the AI extinction letter, and the ‘six-month moratorium’ letter before it (we seem only to communicate in open letters in the AI industry these days) received so much coverage is that they were signed by people with real technical expertise. But just because someone is extremely technically adept, does not mean that they understand much else about how the world works. At a recent appearance in Cambridge, the former Google computer scientist Geoff Hinton confessed that he knew a lot about machines but not much about people, power, and politics. This hasn’t prevented Hinton from being listened to and courted by politicians across the world about how they should handle AI. 

Mostly, this dialogue is welcome – politicians and technologists communicating with each other is exceptionally important. It’s why I left a role in government ten years ago for one in a technology company – to help build those bridges. But there is no doubt that there is an ‘influencing’ imbalance at present, and a credulousness with which those who are expert in just one thing are prioritised and revered. It is why Sam Altman, the head of an AI company which profits from a certain set of beliefs being accepted and converted into law, has been received as a prophet throughout his multi-stop tour of the seats of power. It is why the British Prime Minister could announce an AI safety summit with a series of for-profit AI companies but no AI ethicists or social scientists at all. It is why the media landscape has become almost totally co-opted by concerns about human extinction from AI which, even if those espousing those views sincerely believe what they are saying, certainly distracts from much more realistic AI harms. And it is why people are suddenly reporting on and panicking about an innocuous, old use of AI by the remaining Beatles. Because if you are told that a technology might one day dominate and even kill you, by people who seem to really know what they are talking about, then why wouldn’t you become hypervigilant when it starts to affect the things that you love?

Perhaps a few Beatles fans being angry at Paul McCartney for doing something that he isn’t actually doing doesn’t seem like a big deal by itself. But it matters: how people feel they are being treated, how they feel the things they hold dear are being treated, matters. Paul’s reputation can withstand the anger of Smooth Cat. But there will be other examples where people will feel that the use of AI has crossed some line, and it will make them feel angry and unseen. In my forthcoming book, ‘AI Needs You (published with Princeton University Press in 2024)‘, I have written about the importance of consulting and listening to people, and responding to their concerns about the pace of technological change. Those building today’s AI systems are insulated from these feelings, by and large, through their own power and influence, and through their own understanding of what is occurring. But it will be a huge, potentially catastrophic, mistake to assume that everyone else is on board with the AI revolution and proceed accordingly. Focussing attention only on the long-term, minimal risk of mass AI extinction, while overlooking the very real consequences of AI use today — from false imprisonment to denial of benefits — will only confuse and alienate people further, in turn reducing the likelihood that potentially good and helpful uses of AI will be accepted. 

Most people are not worried about the risk of human extinction from AI. They are worried about their health, their livelihoods, and their freedoms. They want to know how AI will affect those things, and who is looking out for them. And yes, they are worried about AI messing with the Beatles. Beloved music of their childhoods, of their parents’ childhoods, which has seen them through good times and bad. Here ‘Comes the Sun’ at a wedding, ‘Let it Be’ at a funeral. It is understandable that people reacted so strongly to the news that John’s voice might be recreated, and not just enhanced, with AI. These are hymns to many, and it would be sacrilegious to mess with them. Luckily, that is not what’s happening. But someone, somewhere, will eventually cross a line. There will be a backlash. 

And I don’t think we are anything like ready for this.


The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

Authors

Verity Harding

Affiliated Researcher

Verity Harding is a globally recognised expert in AI, technology and public policy. She is currently Director of the AI and Geopolitics Project (AIxGEO) at the Bennett Institute for Public...

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