When Marquis Boone got a Dropbox file with the gospel song “Biblical Love” by J. C., he listened to it five times in a row.
This is crazy, he said to himself.
What amazed him was not the song, but the artist. The person singing “Biblical Love” was not a person at all.
J. C. is an artificial intelligence (AI) that Boone and his team created with computer algorithms. Boone’s company Marquis Boone Enterprises broke the news in November that, after working on the problem for more than a year, they had successfully created the first virtual, AI gospel artist.
The exact details of how the AI music is created is proprietary information, but Boone said the basic premise is to use software algorithms to recognize patterns, replicate them, and ultimately create new ones.
J. C., he and his team have boasted, will be a front-runner for top entertainer in the metaverse—a hypothesized future online experience where virtual reality and augmented reality are used to create an “embodied internet.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg touted the idea that “the metaverse is the next chapter” of social media last fall, when he announced his company was changing its name to Meta.
Boone said his interest in creating a Christian AI musician began about two years before, when he started hearing about AI artists in the pop music genre.
“I really just started thinking this is where the world is going and I’m pretty sure that the gospel/Christian genre is going to be behind,” Boone told CT.
Christians, he said, are too slow to adopt new styles, new technologies, and new forms of entertainment—always looking like late imitators. For him, it would be an evangelistic failure not to create Christian AI music.
“If we don’t want to grow with technology or we don’t want to grow with this,” Boone said, “I think we’re going to miss a whole generation.”
Not everyone agrees.
Matt Brouwer, a Canadian Christian singer-songwriter with four original top-20 hits, said that when he first heard about it, the AI gospel singer sounded like a gimmick. Then, the more he thought about it, the more strongly he disliked the idea.
“If ever there was a desperate need for a human connection and a moment when the world is longing to unplug from technology, social media and Zoom calls, it’s now,” Brouwer said.
He has no doubt the technology exists to create catchy pop songs, but he believes Christian music is supposed to be something more than that.
“Christian music should be an invitation to join a faith journey, and that invitation means more when it comes from someone who’s already on that road,” he said. “The idea of record, radio, and retail executives spending time and money opting for a nonhuman machine to produce pop Christian hits instead of engaging with true worshiping hearts and young people who need support and encouragement to pursue what God is leading them to, well, the thought is pretty grim.”
Tyler Huckabee, senior editor for Relevant magazine, had a similar reaction. The AI seemed to him to be the digital manifestation of the worst impulses of an industry that too often misses the point of Christian music.
“So much of the modern Christian worship industrial complex is already fueled by market tested formulas that it’s probably no enormous loss to cut out the middle man and just let a slightly modified calculator do the work,” Huckabee wrote.
“All you’ve got is all the modern worshiptainment biz really needs: a pretty chorus, a few Bible-y buzzwords and a passably diverting emotional high.”
Boone has heard the criticisms, but he doesn’t take them too seriously. That’s just how Christians respond sometimes to things that are new, he said.
According to Leah Payne, evangelical historian and author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of Contemporary Christian Music, he has a point: “Church people can definitely be leery of new trends,” she said. “In any institution, change often takes a while—and some attribute the newness to the influence of Satan. … That’s almost to be expected of a new invention in Christian worship.”
Christians may be more open to this kind of technological advancement than they have been in the past, though. COVID-19 pushed many to adapt to online platforms, such as Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live. It’s only one more step to having church in virtual, augmented reality, and a step beyond that to worshiping along with AI.
“It’s one thing to watch other flesh-and-bone worshipers on YouTube, though, and another thing to be led by AI,” Payne said. “I will be watching to see if J. C. can overcome the so-called ‘uncanny valley,’ wherein humans feel revulsion when artificial intelligence or other forms of technology are too similar to human beings.”
Boone says that’s something he and his team are working on. They want the sound to be as organic as possible. But ultimately, they don’t think it will matter whether the music algorithm sounds like a human artist.
“We really want people to get beyond ‘This is not a real person,’ to ‘This is a movement, this is where the world is going,’” he said.
Right now, though, AI gospel music is not a movement, and it’s not even 100 percent AI. There is still significant human involvement in the production of J. C., which is necessary to determine the quality of what the algorithms produce and decide what is worth keeping. The lyrics, for instance, were selected by a person.
Boone admits that approximately 65 percent of the final product is human, and only 35 percent the product of computer learning.
“We mixed the human knowledge with the computer process,” he explains. “It’s not something we can just do overnight. It took us some time to really feed the data and get the algorithm and all the information in the system.”
The virtual persona is also largely a human product based on data about common consumer preferences. Boone and his team looked at what artists tend to be most successful. Male artists do better in gospel, so they decided the AI would be male. Acoustic styles communicate authenticity, so the team decided J. C. would produce acoustic-style music. The name, hinting at a possible reference to Jesus Christ, was picked to get people talking.
The popular response has been decidedly mixed, according to Boone. But he’s undeterred. The metaverse is coming, he said, and J. C. will be a witness for God’s glory when it does.
“Even in this space, there is still a need to worship the ultimate Creator who is God,” he said. “God has given people who have created this space the ability to be innovative, the vision, and the purpose.”
Adam MacInnis is a reporter in Canada.
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