Music in the Age of Spiritual Machines

by Nikki Olson on March 2, 2011

Ray Kurzweil’s 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines has a metallic, semi-reflective cover. One way to interpret this stylistic choice has been to think of the cover as a metaphor for the rest of the book in that it is meant to reflect the future of humanity; literally.

When looking at the cover, one sees a metallic version of oneself. Kurzweil predicts that we will merge with machines so that the human race becomes a hybridization of man and machine, of biological and non-biological.

The cover is a figurative mirror test for human-machine consciousness. When looking at the cover, one sees one’s future self.

When Kurzweil first proposed that machines would be spiritual, his view was met with strong criticism. Many academics and theologians rejected the idea altogether, claiming that Kurzweil really didn’t understand spirituality, or, that accepting his thesis required redefinition, a ‘devaluation’ of the word ‘spiritual.’

Since then it seems we have been gradually accepting his viewpoint on this.

One harbinger of ideological change in culture occurs with a shift in the artistic community. Art reflects social norms and beliefs, but it can also portend them.

There is a long list of artists whose work has been inspired directly by Kurzweil’s ideas and more and more, musical artists are addressing the Singularity. These include: Our Lady Peace; The Foals; Paul Dempsey; Yeasayer and Bright Eyes.

For example, Arc of Time, a 2006 song by Bright Eyes, alludes to the potential spiritual nature of ‘mind uploading.’ The lyrics discuss the spiritual epiphany of being ‘born again,’ making an analogy between being ‘born again’ as a Christian and being ‘born again’ on a circuit board. On a circuit board, Bright Eyes writes, spiritual epiphany might be limitless, as one can be ‘born again’ over and over:

“To the deepest part of the human heart

The fear of death expands

Until we crack the code we have always known

But could never understand

On a circuit board we will soon be born


Again and again and again and again…

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Paul Dempsey has written a song about Ray Kurzweil’s fictional avatar alter ego ‘Ramona,’ emphasizing the beauty and limitless nature of future beings with lines like:

“Eyes like crystal balls

That just won’t shut up

About the future of the future”

In addition to music being written about the spiritual aspects of the Singularity, there are machines producing music now that could be considered ‘spiritual.’

David Cope created Emily Howell in the 1990s. Emily can compose new pieces of music that sound as if written by Beethoven, Bach and others by finding patterns in the composer’s style and replicating those patterns in new compositions. Howell produced its own CD of ‘original’ work entitled From Darkness, Light, which was met with varied reviews.

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Human-machine interfaces used in making music have become more nuanced as of late, allowing us to better envision how the human spirit can be preserved in the ‘human-machine’ hybrid.

Accomplished artists such as Brian Eno have gone on record against human-machine interfaces when it comes to making really meaningful music. In an interview with Pitchfork last year, Eno gave a critique of electronic instrumentation for its inability to capture the subtle kinesthetic intelligence being exerted in musical expression.

But there is growing evidence that the limitations in this facet of human-machine interaction are temporary and perhaps very soon to be eliminated.

Steven Mann’s Hyradulophone gives a glimpse into the kinds of interfaces we can expect in the future, where ‘tactile’ information coming from us can be preserved in the interaction with devices. Mann is not on his own with these engineering goals, high precision ‘haptic’ interfaces are being developed in all realms of human-machine interaction.

Are we witnessing the early evidence of machines becoming spiritual? Are we beginning to think of the Singularity in a spiritual way as Kurzweil proposed in 1999?

It is true that there is more to human spirituality than is embodied in artistic expression. But the production of art is admittedly an important aspect of human spirituality.  The first evidence of human spirituality is thought by many anthropologists to correlate with the appearance of artifacts.

Ultimately, spiritual expression on the part of machines will be something we will know when we see it. Like consciousness, a Turing Test will only tell us so much about a machine’s status with regards to spirituality. We will know when machines stop imitating spirituality and actually start embodying it.

It seems we are well on track to the future that Kurzweil predicted in 1999, and many people outside the Singularity community itself are beginning to recognize the spiritual potential of machines.

The development of spiritual insight on the part of machines will create an intimate and profound connection between machines and us.

The mirror stage in human beings leads to a profound connection between body and self, between the ‘mechanistic’ and the mind.

Like the recognition of the mind as the operator of the body, recognizing a spiritual nature in a machine will lead to a unity between man and machine important to many tasks that humans and machines will face together in the future.

About the Author:

Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity with Dr. Kim Solez, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She has a background in philosophy and sociology, and has been involved extensively in Singularity research for 3 years. You can reach Nikki via email at [email protected].

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  • Socrates

    I have to say though that I actually like all the attached tunes quite a lot… so the music in the Age of Spiritual Machines sounds pretty good to me ;-)

  • Nikki Olson

    I also like them a lot. Especially ‘Ramona Was A Waitress’. Its nice to see that so much music has been inspired by Kurzweil and his ideas :) I don’t know of any music directing criticism at the ideas. You would think there would be seeing as there are so many writers/thinkers critical of them. Maybe that kind of criticism doesn’t work set to music ;)

    I guess there is a weatlh of music pointing out the dissociative effects of contemporary fast paced society and the alienating effects of technology. But nothing targeted at Kurzweil directly that I know of.

  • Socrates

    Hey Nikki,
    Check out the link to Post Human Era’s mp3 and YouTube video in the “Related Articles” above - you may like that one too. I myself like it a lot!

  • Nikki Olson

    Thanks Socrates!

    I also like the music of Post Human Era a lot. And their website ( has such beautiful imagery. Glad to know about, Daniel Finfer seems quite talented! :)

  • Nathan Wosnack


    Building The Machine Remix Video was a great track and video. I remember watching this in early November linked from the Life Boat Foundation’s web-site. It captured the ethos of technological innovation of the early 20th century quite well.

    Fast forward to the new decade in the 21st century, and we are now building the ‘machine(s)’ that will not only replace those manual jobs, or to assist us with key workforce automation, but rather to replace us completely; allowing humans to transcend beyond the limitations of our own biology. ;-)

    - Nathan Wosnack

  • James Felton Keith

    I’m curious to know what we or Ray is defining as spiritual. I just attended a conference on the subject and found that the interpretations and corresponding philosophical and empirical research presented spanned a wide range of phenomena. Does spiritual phenomena manifest as physical happenings or non-physical happenings?

  • Nikki Olson

    Hi James!

    Ray adamantly puts forth a ‘materialist’, ‘physicalist’, view of the world, including consciousness, and spiritual phenomena to him manifest as physical happenings. That was part of the initial controversy with ‘The Age of Spiritual Machiens’ as many of the critics aruged a kind of ‘dualism’ in response.

    I think its difficult to feel as though human beings are special at all if you can account for all of the ‘spirituality’ we have in a material way (neurons firering etc.).

    But in what I wrote above I was trying to show that we are getting to a point where we do find a kind of ‘spirituality’ within that ‘materialist’, ‘physicalist’ framework, especially as the complexity of the machines continues to improve. Musical artists are finding the ideas of Ray themselves ‘spiritual’, and interfaces we have with machines are allowing us to express ourselves in a spiritual way and have it not lost in translation.

    When it comes to ‘spirituality’ in the age of AI, I think its very difficult to predict what things will be like. But I am optimistic. I see transcendence on the horizon, I see new levels of understanding and consciousness being opened up via augmentation.

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