Marvin Minsky and Tod Machover talk music and the mind

A trip to the World Science Festival delves into questions of what the human mind is, and what music means to it.

Last night I attended "Machover and Minsky: Making Music in the Dome" at this year's World Science Festival.

Out of MIT's Media Lab, Marvin Minsky, artificial intelligence visionary, and Tod Machover, composer and inventor of hyperinstruments (and Guitar Hero!), discussed music's organizational effect on the brain, mergers between art and science, and artificial immortality (whatever that is).

"I don't like a lot of music very much," said Minsky, author of Society of Mind. "But in classical music, there are many complicated structures. To understand them, you need to split your mind into three or four parts. That to me is the most interesting problem."

Taking place within the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, the evening touched on many interesting problems, or puzzles. It kicked off to Flora, a musical display on the domed ceiling above where bright biological images morphed and moved to a conglomeration of strange and not-so-strange sounds. The trippy light show demonstrated how through music the mind is able to find order among a deluge of sensory information where no obvious order is apparent.

By synchronizing many areas of the brain, parts associated with emotion, cognition, memory, language, your heartbeat, your breathing, etc., Machover described how music is telling you a story, but you don't know what it is.

I was particularly drawn to the idea of personalized music. Unlike pop music, which many people share similar reactions to, this would be music that only you would "understand" or relate to. Personalized music would be akin personalized medicine, but instead of derived someone's genetic makeup, the music would emanate from the intricate workings of their mind, in real time. In essence, your brain is the composer: As the music expresses your mind, your mind responds to the music. Sounds cool.

And the possible applications? Besides losing oneself in one's own mind music (or perhaps finding oneself there), I suppose there could be all sorts of applications, for instance music therapy. Or perhaps music that could replace your "think positively" tapes or a song that makes you last longer on the treadmill.

"Technology allows you to let your imagination run its full course," said Machover.

The opera he is working on, Death and the Powers, does just that. Complete with operatic robots (right), the story is of an ailing man who dies physically but not before he downloads the contents of his mind into his surroundings. He (or his computerized mind) learns to communicate to his family through his house, thus achieving an artificial immortality.

If you're in New York City this weekend, I suggest checking out more of what else the World Science Festival has to offer. And if you happen to be in Vienna? Visit the Brain Opera exhibit at the Haus der Musik.


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com