Review Summary: Johann Johannsson's "IBM 1401, A User's Manual" is a warm, beautiful exposition of the potential of artificial intelligence and the future of ethics in relation to our computerized companions.
For parents, hearing your newborn cry for the first time may qualify as the most magnificent moment in your life. From that moment on, you’re given a responsibility equal to the length of their lifetime. For those of us who have not had the benefit of witnessing childbirth firsthand, we are still very aware of the significance of life, its connotations, and the distinction between lifeless entities and organisms. The very essence of our awareness, consciousness, allows us to survey all that life has to offer. Then why, when I listen to Johann Johannsson’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual
, do I hear tones emitted from a primitive computer model that feel alive
? Are not computers without consciousness? Where is Alan Turing when you need him?
Over thirty years ago, Johann Johannsson’s father Johann Gunnarsson used to make computers sing. Today, this Icelandic born son of the computer technician has made his mark in music as a producer, musician, and composer. Gunnarsson used the IBM 1401 machine (announced by IBM in 1959) in a non-traditional manner to demonstrate its incredible potential to communicate. It’s not near the level of HAL 9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey
, but in the scope of mankind, are we really that far away? A computer singing at that time is the infant form of HAL 9000’s rendition of “Daisy Bell” during his deconstruction. Johannsson takes a leap forward with his father’s brilliant idea by incorporating a sixty-piece string orchestra with the IBM 1401’s sounds (recorded by Gunnarsson) to convey the beauty surrounding the notion of computers and their assimilation into modern society. Johannsson sees the integration as inevitable (according to the text he released along with the album) and raises many questions through the music. The listener is left wondering about the possibility of a computer assuming consciousness and the future ethics necessary to handle the situation of computers demanding recognition in society.
The superimposition of this machine under violin, though considered ancient by today’s computational standards, is full of life in the moment. When the album begins, a repetitive drone created by the IBM 1401 simulates the first cries of life, heard with little fascination in the year 2007, though it certainly floored the engineers who heard it in the early 1960s. The amplitude is increased and the drone becomes more audible, before Johannsson brings in the violins to celebrate this moment of creation. The violins demonstrate the importance of this moment by producing an atmosphere that unleashes the glory present at the dawn of modern man. In the scope of mankind, the birth is the beginning to the rapidly expanding technological age that we are experiencing and accelerating daily.
It’s called A User’s Manual
for a reason, and that reason is to instruct humans how to handle the situation of highly advanced artificial intelligence. A ding of a bell initiates monotone instructions for the IBM 1401 throughout the second track, simple maintenance operations for the preservation and proper handling of the device. Before long into the second track, the violins begin to echo the instructions and proceed to sing along with the 1401. The subtle instructions are the platform on which the string section launches an array of feelings and doubts surrounding the 1401. The arrays build and pages of information flutter outward as the 0s and 1s become more than numbers, but ideas and emotions
. When this electronic expression is grounded, the monotone instructions fade into oblivion.
The rest of the album illustrates warmth and splendor through the evolution of the 1401 and its function as a starting point for artificial intelligence. It’s not bells and whistles, nor is it the annoying sound of dial-up internet, but deep hums, light rings, and electric screams that are abundant on IBM 1401, A User’s Manual
. Also featured on the final piece is an undeniably mesmerizing song performed by the 1401, accompanied by the violin section as they present their case for acknowledgement.
So where will we be as a Western society in fifty years? A time when microprocessors can be found in household items, computers will function as the primary learning resource in our schools, and androids will have to lie down on conveyor belts during airport security check-ins (maybe). Will we be able to seamlessly adapt to the needs of machines as they near intelligence akin to our own? Will we be able to understand their feelings
, if any? IBM 1401, A User’s Manual
answers that the most significant adjustments we will have to make will need to be done in the name of preservation, fairness, and responsibility. After all, did we not give birth to this child?