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Music Professor Deirdre Loughridge Accepted into Institute for Advanced Study to Research Human Versus Machine-Thinking in Music

Professor Deirdre Loughridge.

CAMD faculty member Deirdre Loughridge, Assistant Professor of Musicology, has been accepted to the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), one of the world’s leading centers for curiosity-driven basic research. The Institute – which brings together scholars from historical studies, mathematics, natural sciences, and social science – provides a collaborative backdrop for research and creative study. Since 1930, it has served as a model for protecting and promoting independent inquiry and highlighting the importance of academic freedom around the world; the new members who arrive each year typically represent more than thirty different countries.

Professor Loughridge is the first scholar from Northeastern University who has been invited to the Institute as a Member in the School of Historical Studies. Her membership will allow her to continue exploring how music has been used to define the nature of, and the relationships between, humans and machines from the 18th century to today. “There are many examples of viewing humans and machines as inherently oppositional and binary,” said Professor Loughridge. “Historically, machines have been seen as threatening to humans in the context of music, but we are now seeing more examples of the two intertwining and collaborating. This sense of collaboration is becoming the more prominent paradigm, and there is now more often a harmonious view that machines can contribute to human expressivity or creativity.”

Professor Loughridge’s research on the relationship between humans and machines begins in the 18th century, which was an important era for the development of musical androids, robotic musicians that could move their fingers to play, eyes, and even their bodies in the subtle ways a human musician would. One example of this is Pierre Jaquet Droz’s automata “The Musician,” which is modelled as an organ player and able to play a custom-built instrument.

Photo: Jaquet-Droz’s automata – The Musician

Today, we see analogous examples that are rooted in AI and robotics, such as Sophia from Hanson Robotics, who sang at the 2016 Clockenflap music festival. She is an experiment in social robotics that has attracted a lot of publicity, and illustrates the continued importance of musical performance to testing how close robots can come to seeming human.

Photo: Sophia by Hanson Robotics.

Professor Loughridge taught a course last fall that introduced her students to this breadth of machine applications to music, and the evolution of their reception over time. Many of the course concepts exemplify what she will be researching at the IAS.

The class, entitled Sounding Human, explored how people have used music to answer the question of what it means to be human and how boundaries between the human and non-human (animal, machine, alien, etc.) have been defined musically. Students were challenged to engage with the ethical quandaries that inevitably arise when examining the line between human and non-human.

One course assignment that explored these ethical implications was a creative writing assignment based on Space Opera, a science fiction book by Catherynne M. Valente. The book depicts a scenario where humankind from planet Earth must compete in an intergalactic musical contest which serves as a kind of test of sentience, and is used by the alien hosts to determine the fate of the human species. After reading the book, the students in Professor Loughridge’s class engaged through their own fictional scenarios with questions such as: what does it mean to be human, who gets to count as part of our human community, what rights are reserved for various community members, and how can music – for better or worse – sway these sorts of judgments?

Professor Loughridge looks forward to continuing the conversation around these ethical questions and well beyond with her colleagues from across fields at the IAS.  

“Being accepted as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study is exciting because it will provide me with the time needed to conduct my research, but I am also looking forward to working with the other people who are going to be there,” explained Professor Loughridge. “Joining seminars and sharing my research with the other scholars, especially across the various disciplines, will surely produce new ideas that I could not have anticipated. I am particularly interested in the history of science and machine-learning, two topics that are central to the IAS.”

The IAS atmosphere focuses on questions that can cause our view of something to constantly twist and turn. For example: what do we know, what do we yet need to understand, and how should we try to comprehend it? With these questions as a framework, today’s IAS faculty and members share the conviction of the Institute’s founders that unrestricted deep thinking will change the world, but where and how is always going to be a surprise. Among these faculty and members are 33 Nobel Laureates, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists, and 17 of the 19 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners. Past faculty have included Albert Einstein, one of its first Professors who remained at the Institute until his death in 1955, and distinguished scientists and scholars such as Kurt Gödel, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Panofsky, Hetty Goldman, Homer A. Thompson, John von Neumann, George Kennan, Hermann Weyl, and Clifford Geertz.

Professor Loughridge begins her membership at the IAS in the fall of 2019, and we look forward to hearing about her research that develops.