Don't be afraid of AI, says Holly Herndon and her digital twin

Don’t be afraid of AI, says Holly Herndon and her digital twin

As artificial intelligence has improved, fears about our AI-based future have grown. Even small steps toward more sophisticated AI have raised concerns that robots will kill human jobs or that AI-generated deepfakes will distort our sense of reality.

In the art world, apprehensions about AI are particularly acute. An AI-generated artwork recently won first prize in a competition at the Colorado State Fair, causing an outcry from artists and critics. Other experiments replacing illustrators and writers have caused similar twists.

Despite this widespread apprehension, Holly Herndon, musician and experimental artist, doesn’t think AI is bad or ruins art. These technologies are here to stay, she told me recently, and you might as well learn to live with them.

“I think the best way forward is for artists to look at developments in machine learning,” she said, suggesting that they “think about ways to conditionally invite others to experiment”.

Last year, Herndon started a project called Holly+, a tool that lets other artists make music using an AI-generated likeness of her voice. Works created using Holly+ are essentially vocal deepfakes sanctioned and encouraged by Herndon.

Herndon’s use of AI shows a way forward not just for artists, but for the rest of us as well. Instead of rejecting new technologies, everyone from workers to businesses to hobby creators can learn to use these tools to make their lives easier or open up new creative paths. By embracing AI, would-be skeptics can help ensure the fledgling technology is used for good, rather than left to be shaped by ill-intentioned parties. That doesn’t guarantee a totally positive outcome, but with projects like Holly+, Herndon is highlighting the benefits of technology like AI, while proving that it’s not just a substitute for human creativity.

From an AI “baby” to deepfakes and crypto

In Berlin, Herndon has made AI a recurring theme in his work over the past decade, experimenting with human-computer collaboration in his recordings and live performances. An early example of this is his 2015 album, “Platform”, which combines the organic qualities of the human voice with machine sounds and digital processing techniques. For his 2019 album, “Proto”, Herndon took this approach further by creating Spawn, an AI “baby” who fused his voice and the voice of his partner, Mat Dryhurst, into a synthetic female entity that provided additional voices.

Holly Herndon surrounded by microphones.

Holly Herndon’s 2015 album “Proto” includes vocals from an AI “baby” she created with her partner.

Boris Camaca



The Holly+ Project synthesizes insights Herndon gathered over a decade of engagement with AI, a process of inquiry that led her to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Stanford University Acoustics. The heart of Holly+ is simple: anyone can upload an audio file, and the tool will create a new version with Herndon’s processed voice, ready for upload. In her blog post announcing Holly+, Herndon said she envisions a future where digitally created voices “will soon become mainstream practice for artists and other creatives.”

A wide variety of music has been created using Holly+, from glitchy electronic tracks to ambient compositions to more conventional pop songs. Many tracks push the human voice to its limits, cutting Herndon’s vocals into almost unrecognizable fragments or turning them into bits of a sonic collage. Herndon has also used Holly+ in live performances, appearing at the Helsinki Festival with a local choir.

While the project has produced an ever-growing range of fascinating art, Holly+ is also raising questions about the future of this art. If AI can reproduce a unique voice like Herndon’s, or tap into the vast archive of existing human-produced content, will it eventually replace the role of humans in making this art? And who owns the art produced by an AI model?

Who owns what?

The prospective influence of AI on the art world is not without precedent. The ease of copying, editing and distributing digital files today means that content can always change, often without recognition that it has been modified. Analog media, on the other hand, is harder to edit, and it usually leaves a mark. Now, official versions of songs are endlessly remixed, movies and TV episodes are changed after their initial release, and text and images go viral as attribution-free, ever-changing memes. Sampling – reusing part of a song into another recorded song – has become a staple of pop music over the past few decades.

“In the same way that trying to stop media sampling was a dead end, we’ve entered an era of AI where it will become easy to generate media using someone’s voice, face, or style. a.” Herndon told me. As with sampling, she argued, AI presents a great opportunity for artistic play and innovation “as long as we can soften the economic blow of these powerful new tools.”

Holly+ highlights a few shocks that could arise, particularly around artists’ ability to control their intellectual property – the legal basis for copyright laws. It’s hard enough to claim the content you’ve created now, but emerging AI tools open up a whole new set of complications. Is an AI-generated image done in the style of a particular artist plagiarism, or is it an original product of the model that generated it? As AI models improve and integrate more deeply into the digital world, artists will need to understand the nature of the IP they produce and devise strategies to retain control of that IP.

“I started the Holly+ project because I think it’s a generational opportunity to rewrite the way we think about intellectual property,” Herndon told me. In Holly+’s announcement post, Herndon said, “There will be demand for official, high-fidelity voice models of public figures.”

This is where crypto comes in: the blockchain technology that underpins crypto allows users to precisely track ownership of digital files such as songs and images, while establishing an indelible record of their origins. This allows artists to sell digital works and ensure that they will always receive credit for their creation (even if the work itself is freely copied), while giving buyers of the works the certainty that they can prove they own the original version — a capability that, in turn, makes them willing to pay more.

Holly Herndon with the Holly+ logo overlaid in green

Holly+ is controlled by a DAO, which is similar to a worker cooperative.

Andrés Manon



Crypto thus allowed Herndon to help financially reward artists who create songs with Holly+, while receiving compensation herself. To do this, Herndon created a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or DAO, which is akin to a worker cooperative. Anyone who owns the crypto tokens of a specific DAO becomes a voting member. When other artists create a work using Holly+, they can submit it to the Holly+ DAO, whose members vote to determine which submissions are good enough to be turned into non-fungible tokens and sold through an auction process – think of an NFT as the definitive “original” pressing of a song. (Anyone can use the Holly+ voice tool itself without submitting the output to the DAO, however.) Like shareholders in a company, DAO members benefit from the overall quality of the Holly+ brand via the value of their tokens. Herndon says on his website that DAO members “are encouraged to certify or license only new works that contribute value to the voice.”

This arrangement benefits Herndon by minimizing incentives to do bad art with Holly+ or use her voice in a negative way, while relieving her of sole responsibility for managing the tool. Proceeds from each NFT sale are split between the creator of the work, members of the Holly + DAO and Herndon – an arrangement that reflects each party’s contribution to a given piece. As AI continues to evolve and become more central to various creative endeavors, the DAO structure offers a way to credit participants more fairly and help artists retain more control over their work.

AI is no stranger

As technology continues to evolve, artists and creators must continue to adapt. Herndon’s work, especially Holly+, shows how creative people can approach developments like AI with an open mind, while maintaining a pragmatic awareness of the downsides of technology. She said, “Most of the AI ​​processes we know now are revolutionary ways of aggregating the products of human intelligence.” In other words, AI can be another tool used by artists, instead of just being a threat to their livelihoods.

And working with AI can be fun. “I’m in love with submissions!” Herndon talked about the works created with the Holly+ tool. “Artists have taken my voice in all sorts of directions. There are whistling trains, sweet duets and insane club tracks.”

Now Herndon is taking lessons from Holly+ to his new organization, Spawning, which will equip other artists to reap the benefits of AI by using it to improve their work, while protecting their intellectual property from the threats it introduces. . Herndon told me that the organization aims “to help others take that step and make their own decisions about how their voices and styles are used.”

While artists are among the first to seriously grapple with the implications of cutting-edge AI, the technology has the potential to affect everyone, whether in their work or in another area of ​​their lives. Both Holly+ and the Spawning organization offer models for embracing technological change and making the most of it, rather than trying to resist or avoid it.

“I see how many things could go wrong,” Herndon told me, “but I am committed to creating ways to steer things in a better direction.”


Drew Austin is a technology critic, writer, and author of the Kneeling Bus newsletter.

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