The robots are coming. They’re coming to take our jobs, to move into our homes, and to transform us into their sex slaves. As far-fetched as it sounds, many seemingly rational commentators and researchers genuinely believe that, within the next couple of decades, robots will be everywhere and doing almost everything. Yet for Canadian producer Tristan Douglas, the possibility of artificial intelligences replacing humans as the zeniths of sentience and sensitivity is not only a tad unnerving, but also a tad implausible. In Virtuous.scr, he attempts to use his own robotic simulation of ambient and club music as a figure for what happens when AIs themselves attempt to simulate human beings, and in the process, he suggests that a truly convincing human simulacrum is still a long, long way off. Nonetheless, just as that doesn’t prevent robots from being valuable in their own right, it doesn’t stop his debut album from being valuable to the genres it discordantly mashes up into a web of spiky beats and pulsating rhythms.
As he explained in a recent interview with FACT, the microbial, mechanical, and manufactured sounds of Virtuous.scr represent a “human sentimentality broken down into its constituent parts, and reassembled based on AI algorithms in a way that only approximates human feeling.” In other words, such cuts as opener “a.l.i.c.i.a” exhibit familiar musical touchstones — the billowing synth-crests of ambient, the echoing pulses and claps of IDM — but in a way that disfigures and denatures them, so that they become as awkwardly stilted and codified as the imitative robots they illustrate. They shift abruptly from one “mode” (e.g. mood, texture, sample, beat, or phrase) to another, and in their jagged discontinuity, they emblematize how robots lack the overarching and continuous self-purpose that would potentially make them human.
What’s interesting and engaging about this critical vision of AI is that Virtuous.scr doesn’t simply present it fully formed from the get-go, but rather soundtracks what appears to be the evolution of synthetic life, so that the album’s initial primordial soup of burbling ambience and scattershot beats gives way to a more cohesive yet ultimately screwy simulation of house music and EDM. It’s likely that this evolutionary progression derives partly from Douglas’s day job in microbiology, which manifests itself most palpably as an influence in such a liquified soundscape as “Lung,” where ethereal arpeggios and an unseemly trickling noise spark the impression that you might actually be listening to the molecular genesis of an artificial lung. A little later, these atmospheric bubblings and churnings solidify into the tricky beat-work of “Sneakers,” which stops on a dime and hurls machine-gun bursts prior to reaching an evolutionary epiphany of sorts, one that’s nearly (but not quite) as random as the natural selection it appears to mimic.
It’s from the transition of “Sneakers” that the approximations and simulations really begin, with “Spirit Fabric” hinging its serrated, splintered chillout on dispersed trance keys and riffs that conceivably depict an artificial intelligence learning the basic elements of club music but not quite learning how to merge them into a seamless whole. It ends its disjointed run of club tropes with a metallic, computerized voice declaring, “I have awoken,” at which point the more coherent and linear “Prototype HA” begins, as if marking the point at which Douglas’s AI becomes self-aware and thereby able to regulate itself in greater accordance with human convention.
However, even if “Prototype HA” finds him supplying a more fluid and articulate rendition of dance/EDM/IDM, the continued and sudden occurrence of mechanistic signifiers — the whirring of hydraulic arms, the hissing of steam, the drilling of robotic beats — conspires to imply that no matter how sophisticated artificial intelligence may become, it won’t ever manage a flawless impersonation of human intelligence. As with the song’s rigid angularity and distinctive excesses, it will always let certain “tells” slip into the mix, be they an overzealous application of the norms of human conduct or an inability to adjust quickly enough to changes in the environment. Consequently, they’ll always create the notorious, cognitively dissonant “Uncanny Valley” effect, which Douglas refers to in a convulsive, pounding tirade of the same name, duping us into thinking they’re alive while simultaneously reminding us that they’re not.
For now, robots and AI certainly aren’t alive, yet the failure of Virtuous.scr to perfectly “imitate” EDM and house music is ultimately its success. Its invigoration of unpredictable dynamics and violent machinery into the commonplaces of club genres only revitalizes its source material, rendering this material more compelling and exhilarating as a result. It may not offer much hope for those holding their breath for human-indistinguishable robotics, but its inventive dance-jams and off-kilter compositions show how, despite their shortcomings, robots will prove to be an extremely worthwhile and enriching complement to human life. Just don’t expect them to replace that life anytime soon.