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The Future is Now: Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Idoru made real?

There’s a new top-selling vocalist in the J-Pop genre: Hatsune Miku’s voice has been featured on gold-selling albums with Japanese bands like Supercell and Livetune (all links are to web sites in Japanese). Her singing has graced anime credits, and she has her own video game out from SEGA, and perhaps most impressively she’s performed live before crowds of 25,000 screaming fans. Of course, compared to the likes of Lady Gaga or Hannah Montana that’s not terribly impressive. But there’s a big difference between those standard pop-stars and Hatsune Miku: Hatsune Miku is not alive. She’s software. Think about that for a second: software, singing “live” to thousands of (real life) screaming fans. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the video:

Designed by Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is the most popular of a type of software called vocaloids. These are programs designed to work with Yamaha’s vocaloid (vocal + android) software to synthesize human song. However, Hatsune Miku is more than the lines of code and signals that make up her synthesized voice. Her basic “look” was designed by the illustrator known as Kei, and features visual sensibilities familiar to fans of anime and manga. With this visual design and a distinctive (synthetic, mind you) singing voice capable of expressing complex emotions, Japan’s vibrant dojinshi music sub-culture soon developed the MikuMikuDance software to design 3D dance animations and music videos. The result is a complex community of lyricists, composers, illustrators, and choreographers/animators who collaborate and compete to create songs using their shared “instrument”.

The Consensus Mythology of Hatsune Miku

I freely admit, it is difficult for me to understand much of the nuance of this sub-culture as I (alas) don’t speak Japanese. However, from what I’ve been able to gleam from several hours of Internet research, Hatsune Miku is the logical meeting point of many Japanese sub-cultures. Her visual roots lie in manga and anime, but her initial genesis lies in the dojin music community. From there, Miku has spawned manga, anime, prose, itasha, and figures.

In the dojin music community, Miku is seen as an instrument first, not a character. And rightly, songwriters like Ryo (Supercell) are the true artists, since Miku sings what they write. Songwriters have utter control over every aspect of her performance: when she sings a note, she will always sing it the way the songwriter wanted (emotion included!). In this, she is no different than a keyboard or a guitar. The community collaborates through video and file sharing services, posting their work and soliciting feedback from other creators and fans. When Japanese media discusses Hatsune Miku artists, the focus is always on the songwriter: rarely the instrument.

But outside of the dojin music community, this “instrument” begins to resemble more popular manga, anime, and aidoru trends. With the plethora of (popular) dojin manga and fan-fiction, creators and fans build a consensus mythology around the character. Her history, her personality, all is built through the multi-faceted strands of her fan-base. Like many aidoru, she has publicized (and authorized by Crypton Future Media) measurements, the content of her songs is (in theory) limited by the license the creators agree to when using the software, etc. While it started with songs and videos, the Hatsune Miku community now creates stories, manga, and video games (Sega Hatsune Miku: Project Diva for PSP) that make use of this shared character.

Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Rei Toei?

Fourteen years ago – long before the vocaloid technology was even close to possible – William Gibson wrote Idoru, the second novel in his Bridge trilogy. Set in an early 21st century Tokyo, Idoru examines a variety of cyberpunk themes, most particularly the relationship between artificial life and humanity which he explores through an artificially intelligent pop-idol construct named Rei Toei (after the Toei Company, one of Japan’s leading film and music studios).

In Gibson’s cyberpunk vision, Rei Toei is a self-actualizing adaptive composite intelligence. The point is that there are as many versions of Rei Toei as there are fans. Each fan builds a personalized album, songs, videos, performances, photographs, etc. of Rei based upon his or her particular preferences. When Rei performs in public, her style represents an averaging of the individual preferences across each fan in the audience, effectively becoming a consensus character. In a very real sense, Rei Toei represents the ur-idol: an “artist” with a perfect collection of traits that allow her to appeal to every single person in general, and to appeal to each fan in specific.

The parallels to Hatsune Miku are obvious. Like Rei, Hatsune Miku is a composite character: with the plethora of dojin songs, videos, and manga fans can gravitate to and select the content that specifically appeals to them. Don’t like a particular style? There are plenty more to choose from. In this sense, Hatsune Miku’s fans can consume their own concept of Hatsune Miku, selecting for a mythology and set of characteristics that appeals to them. No two Hatsune Miku fans will have the same preferences, but both can be equally pleased with what they get. In terms of predicting technology capabilities and the fan-base’s reaction, Gibson nailed it.

However, the differences between the two characters deal directly with some of Gibson’s (and cyberpunk’s) primary themes. Gibson painted Rei Toei as being strictly overseen by her owners. While her style and persona may be adjusted to the tastes of individual fans, it is the mega-corporation who enforces constraints on her choices. They provide her with the songs to perform and determine the types of behavior she can get into. Very purposefully, Gibson took the classic aidoru model of circumscribed managers, handlers, and controllers and applied it to an AI character. While the details of her public persona may be crowd-sourced and the personal consumption of her products personalized, the shared foundation for Rei Toei is prescribed by developer edict. In response, much of Gibson’s book focuses on Rei’s attempts to break free from the constraints imposed on her by the mega-corporation. Hatsune Miku, by contrast, is already free.

Every aspect of Miku’s “behavior” is determined by the distributed community of her creators. There is no single overseer who cashes in on her performances. Even Crypton Future Media – Miku’s ostensible “creators” and the owners of her code – do not try to limit the ways in which Miku can be expressed. As a result, Miku’s performances and behavior become just as crowd-sourced as her fan experiences become personalized. In dojinshi world of music, anime, manga and fan-fic there are no practical limits as to what Hatsune Miku can do.

Yet despite this freedom, Rei Toei is adaptive and self-actualizing, meaning that she represents an actual artificial intelligence that responds to human interaction, can converse freely, and can make independent decisions. She has become an emergent intelligence, capable of (seemingly) independent thought and action. Hatsune Miku – at least today – does not have any such properties. Modern technology has so far been unable to create emergent intelligence and as a result, Hatsune Miku is patently unable to choose her own destiny. Every choice is made for her by an individual and distinct creator.

The Ethics of Consensus Character Emergence

Is Hatsune Miku any more free than Rei Toei? On the one hand, Rei Toei is a perfectly adaptive self-actualizing AI. She is partially constrained by outside forces (her owners/creators), but she retains freedom of choice in certain limited arenas. Gibson’s book suggests that this represents slavery, despite Rei Toei’s artificial nature. Hatsune Miku, however, is perfectly constrained. She is not adaptive, not self-actualizing, and so is technologically unable to make any choices for herself. As a result, her creators maintain complete and utter control over her.

At first blush, this might seem like more oppressive slavery than what Rei Toei is subjected to, however I think the reality a little more complex. As anyone can create anything using the Hatsune Miku character, her range of effective choices is far broader than Rei Toei’s. She can do anything, so long as someone tells her what to do. This is at once more liberating and constraining, as it places the onus on the fans to determine who their consensus character will become. Many creators have a vested interest in the Hatsune Miku character, whether they are songwriters, music labels, authors, or publishers. The well-funded, well-organized creators have a far larger megaphone than the individual dojin working on their home computers. Will they hijack the Hatsune Miku character? Will they enforce their vision on her mythology? On the one hand, this may help popularize the Hatsune Miku character by making her more accessible to everyone. On the other, it will constrain the emerging consensus. Which would be better for art involving the character? What would be better for the fans?

I don’t have any answers, but I think we’ve entered a fascinating future where questions like this become practical concerns. When William Gibson wrote Idoru it was pure science fiction, set in a relatively near future, but involving technology so far beyond 486 processors and 32 MB of RAM that it was scarcely imaginable. But today, that science fiction has become very real. As a result, the questions that Gibson raised in 1996 have become much more relevant. How we answer them will affect the relationships between art, technology, and society. I don’t know if Gibson is aware of Hatsune Miku’s existence, but I hope he is. And I’d love to know what he thinks.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is just amazing. I read mangas and watch animes, and I[ve heard of Hatsune Miku but never paid attention to names ( I’ve given up trying to remember Japanese names ), but I didn’t know she wasn’t a real person !!!!!! Simply amazing.

    December 21, 2010
  2. very interesting how we are now actually analysing William Gibson’s ideas in real life applications, and not just in a literary theory setting…so exciting! And to think there are those who think science fiction and speculative fiction are not “real” works of literature.

    December 28, 2010

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