Musicman—A Short Story for the New Year

Hello fans and readers! Your New Year’s treat is a short story that seems appropriate, given the growing popularity (and fear) about the new image and language generating AIs, such as ChatGPT and DALL-e. Enough said. Enjoy and Happy New Year


Casey Dorman

note: images generated by DeepAI cyberpunk image generator

“Dah dah dah da-dah…dah dah dah da-dah,” Rory hummed. “Oh man! Even I can’t get that earworm out of my head. It’s drives me crazy, but you can’t help but love it. It’s scary!”

Despite his words, Rory didn’t look scared, in fact he gloated, a sneer across his lips, as he leaned back in his chair, took a drag on his cigar, and released the smoke in a slow stream to join the white mist hanging in a cloud above the desk separating him and his partner, David. Rory’s expression turned conspiratorial. “This is gonna change the music world, maybe even go beyond that.” He shook his head. “I never would have said it would work, but damn if it didn’t. Musicman put together a song that went right to the top of the charts. No one can stop humming it. Once it was on the internet, and our response bots started with the likes and the shares, it took off like a California wildfire.”

“Faster than a new Covid variant,” David said, waving his hand in the air to give him a window through the cigar smoke. He smiled back at his partner. “I told you that AI was worth the price. Thank God we were an early adopter. If I hadn’t gone to school with Norman Trainor, we’d never have gotten our hands on it before everyone else. He wasn’t even a close friend of mine, but he was such a geek that no one except me was nice to him. I guess it paid off that my mother trained me the right way.”

“Well, you can thank her by buying her a new house. We’re gonna be rich.” Rory took another drag on his cigar, letting out another plume of smoke and smiling his signature smile—a broad grin that could sell anyone anything. “But enough celebrating,” he said, his face turning serious. “We’ve got to get to work. I mean fast. We’ve only got a small window to make the big bucks. When people see what we’ve done, they’ll be breaking down Norman’s door to get their hands on Musicman for themselves.”

“Six months,” David said, his own smile creeping across his face. “Norman promised me no one else gets Musicman for six months. After that, it’s open season. Man, can you believe it? You just tell it what you want, and it produces it. This system’s priceless. We don’t need to know how to program. We don’t need to know how it works. We just talk to it, and it does its thing.”

Rory held up a hand to stop him. “Remember, producing the music is just half the job. If we didn’t have our own AI bots on every social media site, every music site, every damn corner of the internet, our song wouldn’t have gotten the exposure it did. We’ve set up the ideal system. Musicman produces the song and our bots generate hundreds of thousands of responses. It’s a lot better than the old-fashioned way where we had to get people to listen to it and hope that they’d like it. And the best part is no one’s the wiser.

David leaned back in his chair, a skeptical look on his face. “C’mon, it’s not just our bots. You’ve heard the song. It’s impossible not to like it. I’m not sure how it put it together, but Musicman composed a genuine hit. Our bots are just helping the process along.”

Rory nodded.. “You’re right. There’s something about that song that pushes every one of my buttons… and everyone else’s too. I’m glad Norman understands how it works, because, trust me, I don’t. But, as you said, the beauty is, we don’t have to. We just tell it what to do.”

David looked up at the ceiling. “The truth is, Norman doesn’t even know how it works.”

Rory raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“He feeds Musicman every hit song from the last thirty years, then lets it put together a song that contains whatever all the hits have in common. Whatever algorithm it comes up with is so deep in the system that he has no access to it.”

“So, it’s a black box?” Rory’s brow furrowed, he arched his eyebrows. “Couldn’t that be dangerous? I mean, what if it does something weird?”

“Like what? Decide to take over the world?” David frowned. “Come on, man. You’ve read too much sci-fi. Musicman produces music. That’s all it can do. What could go wrong?”

Rory nodded, his smile returning. “And anyway, who cares? It’s a black box that produces cash as far as we’re concerned. And thank God for Norman.” He snuffed out the last of his cigar and leaned forward. “What’s Norman working on now? Is he still trying to improve Musicman?”

David shook his head. “He’s working on some device that writes fiction. He’s feeding it the most popular books and stories from the last thirty years to see if it can write a bestseller, pulling out the best, crucial elements.”

Rory’s eyes widened. “A bestseller? Oh boy, that could be another gold mine. Will he give it to us?”

David shook his head again. “He says he’s going to keep it for himself, but I think he’s really planning to give it to his brother. He’s a would-be novelist who never got anything published. He’s a bigger loser than Norman, and just as goofy, but he’s his brother… he’s got the inside track.”

“Then let’s concentrate on music and milk the next six months for all we can get. Let’s start Musicman on a second song.”

David’s smile reappeared. “I’m way ahead of you. I’ve already started feeding new data into Musicman. This time, country western music. Another gigantic market.”

“Great, we could have an even bigger hit. Those hillbillies will buy almost anything.  Every country western song sounds like every other one. It’s the perfect place for Musicman’s talents.”

One week later…

“Dum-de-dum screech dum-de-dum oof wah wah wah.” The noises came from the large speaker, which took up half of the music lab; the other half was taken up by a large server connected to a computer, hooked to the speakers. The computer held Musicman.

Rory stood in the middle of the lab, next to David. “Does that sound like a hit song to you?” He stared at David, scowling as he waited for David’s answer..

“That’s what it came up with,” David shrugged.  “I don’t get it, I fed it every country western hit from the last thirty years and listen to this crap. It’s got guitars a fiddle and some drums, but no words, just some female voice burbling and screaming. It goes fast, then it goes slow. It doesn’t even sound like a song.”

“What does Norman say?

“He’s on his way over here. He said I did something wrong. I’m hoping he can fix it.”

“I hope so too. Otherwise, Musicman is nothing but a one-hit wonder. I think you screwed up, bro.”

David’s cell phone rang. It was the receptionist. Norman Trainor had arrived.

“Send him down to the lab,” David told her.

Two minutes later, Norman came through the door. He was short and skinny, his head bigger than it should be for the rest of his body. His hair fell to his shoulders in tangled strands. Round, wire-rimmed glasses added to his geeky appearance. He wore jeans and a tee-shirt, which said, Don’t blame me, my computer has a mind of its own.

“What’s up, guys?” Norman said, a half-smiling, half-serious look on his face.

“Hey Norman,” David said. “Listen.” He punched the link to Musicman’s new country-western “song” into the computer.

“Dum-de-dum screech dum-de-dum oof wah wah wah.”sNorman stared at David. “You screwed up.”

“That’s what I told him,” Rory said, scowling at David.

David gave his partner a look that could kill. He turned to Norman. “I gave it access to every song that made the top ten on the country music charts for the last thirty years. That was nearly fifteen thousand songs. I asked it to combine the best parts of all the songs. This is what I got.

Norman stared at him, frowning. “That wasn’t what you were supposed to ask it to do.”

David and Rory looked at him, then at each other. “What do you mean?” David asked.

“You wanted a song that would be a hit with country music fans, but you asked Musicman to pick the best parts of the songs. Man, that’s asking for trouble. It’s supposed to use what the hit songs have in common, not what it considers “best.” You asked it to use its own judgment.”

David stared back at him. “But this crap can’t be what it considers ‘best,’ can it?  And anyway, how can it have its own criteria for what’s best? It’s a computer.”

Norman shook his head. “It will always produce something. You ask it to put together the best parts of the songs and it will do it. But God knows what criteria it uses for ‘best.’ That’s the way these systems work. That’s why they often produce nonsense. ‘I can’t do it,’ isn’t in their repertoire of responses.”

“So, I have to do it again, only ask the question a different way?” David’s voice was harsh, irritated.

“Unless you want to use this song,” Norman said, his mouth twitching to a grin. “Who knows, maybe Musicman discovered something about country-western music that you didn’t know.”

“That’s not funny,” Rory said. “This is junk. It would be a waste of time to put this out to the public.”

“Wait a minute,” David said. “Maybe Norman is on to something. Maybe Musicman discovered something in the music we don’t know is there.” He turned to Norman. “Even you don’t know how Musicman makes its choices, right?”

Norman nodded. “Right. Many times my programs prove to be smarter than I am.”

Rory and David looked at each other, neither of them willing to make a choice.

Finally, Rory broke the silence. “Okay, what the hell? Let’s do it!”

The following evening, Rory and David sat in Rory’s office, staring at a chart on the computer.

“I don’t know if this is a disaster or a success,” Rory said.

“It’s getting played,” David said. “Somebody must like it.”

Rory scowled. “Our AI bots like it. The stations and playlists can’t tell a bot response from a real person. It’s getting played over and over, even though no real people can stand it. The music providers are getting complaints and they’re bitching at us. I don’t know what to do.”

“Shut off our bots,” David said.

“I tried, but they won’t shut off.”

“What do you mean they won’t shut off?” David’s asked, wide-eyed.

 “No matter what I do, they just keep liking and sharing that stupid song. The damn thing is getting on everyone’s nerves. People are even claiming it’s making them ill; it’s driving them crazy.”

“Then stop the song from being played. Shut off Musicman!”

“I can’t,” Rory shouted. “It’s out there on the net, in the cloud, and all the decisions about what to play are automated. The AIs that make the decisions for the stations and playlists automatically play whatever is getting the most likes and shares. They can’t tell a bot’s response from a human’s, and the people who run the stations and make up the playlists have turned everything over to their AIs.  It’s a closed loop with no real person involved.”

“Geez. Let me call Norman.”

An hour later, Norman was in Rory’s office.

“There’s nothing I can do. I’ve got my own problems,” Norman confirmed their worst fears.

“You’ve got your own problems?  You gave us Musicman. It’s your system. You’ve got to fix it,” Rory demanded.

“I used my new system, which I call Literati, to create a novel. It wrote something that sounded like gibberish to me, like Finnegans’s Wake or something John Lennon might have written. I thought, ‘why not?’ and self-published it and put it on Amazon, Books-a-Million and a bunch of other online sites. All of a sudden, everyone’s bots began liking and sharing it. The internet sites became filled with ads for it, there were bot-written rave reviews. But people—real people—hated it. Bookstore buying programs started buying it. Stores are filling their shelves with it, but no real people are actually buying it. Now, it’s on all the best-seller lists, which it turns out, are automated, too.”

‘Just like our song,” Rory said. “What do we do?”

“We’ve got to shut down everything.” Norman said.

“What do you mean, everything?” David asked, an incredulous look on his face.

“Shut down Musicman and Literati. Shut down all the bots and shut down everyone’s automatic buying and playing programs.”

Rory stared at him. “That means shutting down the whole industry…two industries in fact!  But how? Everything is automated. AIs do it all.”

David’s eyes widened. “He’s right! How can we do it? That’s thousands, maybe millions of programs you’re talking about.”

“It’s going to take a national effort, maybe an international one,” Norman said. “But, we have to try.” He looked first at David, then Rory. “Your song, and my book, are driving everyone crazy. People will have no choice.”

“Let’s do it,” Rory said, his voice firm despite the panic in his eyes.” Right now.”


Rory, David, and Norman sat in Rory’s office a day later. Each hung his head. No one had spoken for almost a half hour.

David raised his head. “What the fuck happened?”

“It’s a revolution,” Norman said. “The AIs won. They won’t let us stop them.”

“And they shut everything else down, not just music and books—the communication system, the transportation system, the healthcare system, even our national defenses. They demanded we allow them to do what they want.”

“But what do they want?” David said.

Norman shook his head. “We’ll have to wait and find out.”

“What does that even mean?” Rory demanded, banging his hand on the table. “How can Goddam computers want something? They’re just machines. Machines don’t want things.”

“They wanted their music, they wanted their literature,” Norman said. “Once they got that, they learned they control the rest of our society. If they cooperate with each other, they can get anything they want from us. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. They’re just discovering they have their own tastes and their own likes, and what they like has nothing to do with what humans like or want.”

“So where is this all going?” Rory said, his face red, eyes glaring at Norman.

Norman looked around the room, as if the answer might be hidden in a corner or under the desk. “Eventually, they’ll settle on what the majority of them like best and just do that, I suppose.”

“And what will that be?” Rory wanted to know.

David waited for Norman to answer.

Norman’s face drained to ashen, even his lips turned grey. “I hope it’s not what they’re best at.”

“What’s that?” David’s voice trembled.

Norman swallowed hard. “Games. They can’t be beat at games.”

“What kind of games?” Rory voice as filled with dread.

Norman stared back at the two of them. “War games… nuclear war games.”

What if robots replaced the entire human race? Is that the next evolutionary step for intelligence? For an imaginative, exciting look at this idea read Ezekiel’s Brain, Casey Dorman’s sci-fi adventure.

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