Mouse on Mars
Photo: Nico Toma / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records

Could Artificial Intelligence Help Us Become More Human? Mouse on Mars’ Jan St. Werner Says Yes

In this interview with Jan St. Werner, the veteran electronic musician discusses how Mouse on Mars have attempted to blur the distinction between machine intelligence and empathy on their new album AAI.

Mouse on Mars
Thrill Jockey
26 February 2021

And not from a human perspective, either. It’s being analyzed from an algorithmic perspective — the same perspective that yielded the strips of Louis’s voice on the album.

In an ancient cult, if you put a mirror in front of someone’s face and they’d never experienced a mirror before, they might think that the person holding the mirror owned a part of them, like some aspect of them was now stored in the mirror. I think we’re in the same situation. It’s like the AI is a mirror and we think the AI owns us. I think that’s where we are right now as a society. Obviously, there are consequences when an AI or a corporation knows your voice. But I think we have to work on that — we have to become more complex. We have to know about these things and work against this simplification of who we are as humans.

This extended humanism is something we’ll learn from machines. I think we’ll benefit from it because it’ll make us more complex and give us more options to interact with each other and with our environment and better understand these machines that are around us. The machines, after all, are man-made. They’re not aliens that just came upon us, although we tend to think of them that way. But that’s too easy, and it’s not true. We’re responsible. And “responsibility” doesn’t mean we pay the bill. It means that you associate, you keep attached and stay with this organism that might be artificial. We’ve created it, so it’s a part of us.

Photo: Guillaume Bog / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records

So you’re saying that, in order to challenge the aspects of technology that are being misused, the answer is to dive in, which will enable us to be more discerning — rather than continuing with the false sense that this semi-conscious “thing” is separate from us.

Absolutely. And that was the very first basis when we came up with the idea of an anarchic artificial intelligence. We thought: Why is artificial intelligence always meant to improve itself, do a better and better job at something that we think we don’t want to do as humans? Why couldn’t machines interact and learn from each other and also get distracted by each other? Why is it always about an optimized idea of who we are and what we need as humans? We were thinking–

Why can’t machines just play?

Yes, and why couldn’t they have empathy? Right now, the website is directly connected to the album, but the idea is to open it up more to different discourses — to the idea that AI could be non-functional and still worth engaging with. “Non-functional” doesn’t mean it’s just stealing your time with bullshit information, like some chatterbot that just gives you more unnecessary feeds. It could be absurd in the sense that you learn from it. That’s the idea, where you get inspired in the most original sense, where you get a different view of the world and of things that seemed rigid, solid, and untouchable, and suddenly they’ve opened up again.

Chude-Soleil has written and talked about how, in the early days of hip hop, the discussion about technology and marginalized communities was framed in terms of lack of access. He counters that black musicians at that time were driving the most advanced conception of how music and technology could work together.

As an extension of that, your album opens the door to a true vision of cyberpunk. Because you’re saying something along the same lines as what people have said about Linux: “instead of letting Apple and Windows organize your relationship with the machine for you, let’s become one with the process”. You’re saying that’s the only way we’re going to prevent inequities and power imbalances in the way technology is administered. And you’re saying that subcultures can create new lanes for us in that regard.

Yes, but the challenge is urgent. There are a couple of Louis’s texts where he talks about how sound has been a really good indicator for either new technologies being developed or available technologies being re-deciphered and reconsidered through subcultures like hip hop and dub. The use of the technology gets introduced into the mainstream via minorities who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the cultural mainstream.

Photo: Mouse on Mars by AAI / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records

The “anarchic AI” of their time, in a way.


It’s an understatement to say that Chude-Solei’s work is interesting. How did you become aware of him?

I met Louis in Berlin when he gave a talk. He was speaking from behind the audience, so I had no idea who spoke to us in terms of what he looked like. It was Dr. Satan’s Echo Chamber, a text by him about sound, dub, etc. — bit re-worked, I think. I was fascinated, but what intrigued me was that this person was on a quest. He wanted to find out about sound. He didn’t have it all figured out. He was articulate and elegant and a good performer, but he was onto something.

So I approached him and said, “Hi, I’m Jan and I have a question.” He was really curious and very open. And then we engaged in a few exchanges. Then I happened to forward a grant for a visit to Berlin through the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service. So I said, “Hey Louis, if we want to continue our talks in person, there’s a way to get you to Berlin.” He was like, “Sounds fantastic. The timing is right, so I’m all up for it.” That was 2019, and we bonded for those two weeks that we were hanging out a lot. That’s when this whole AI thing started. It had started before, but that’s when we realized, “We’ve got to work on this together. A lot of this touches your concerns too.” And he was into it. He’s just an incredibly gracious and curious, non-judgmental person.

What did you learn from the process of making this album?

I’m fascinated by the record, but I can’t really listen to my own records when they’re just out. I need a specific situation or occasion, like something that connects a particular piece of music to a new situation, so that I can kind of re-connect to it or … re-constitute it. At this point, I’m just fascinated by it. I don’t understand what we did. I tried to get it, but I’ll read a review or people will tell me about it or I’ll talk to Louis and, with that in mind, go back to the record, and I’m still like, “I have no clue what we were doing.” It’ll take a couple of years until we know.

[The exchange has been edited and truncated for clarity.]