Even so The best radio DJ can be annoying. It’s the character’s role. No matter how smooth their voices are, they still wander between songs – or worse, say. Their little interruptions, popping into your life at unexpected and often inappropriate times, remind you that they are there. They can be annoying, sure, but they’re also comforting, because they’re friendly and normal people.
Of course, no one listens to the radio. We all have Spotify accounts or delete someone else’s. (Thanks Dad!) Radio DJ is a dinosaur built to fuel endless algorithmically generated streaming playlists that are buried and compressed. It’s a blessing in some ways. Choose a genre or a mood and play continuously until the end of time. In the background, artificial intelligence decides what should come next.
The recent rise of generative AI has made some companies no longer content to just let their algorithms hum in the background. They want to bring them to the front. Partly to show off and try to cash in on the current AI gold rush, but also, I think, in an effort to advance their algorithms. AIS put them in the spotlight to convince people who are super cool and can hang sacks of meat with us.
Spotify, the king of algorithmic playlists, is eager to do just that. The music streaming service is rolling out a new AI DJ service starting this week. It’s available as a beta option on the Spotify mobile app, though only for people who pay for Spotify Premium. The feature is the result of Spotify’s acquisition of AI audio service Sonatic last year. A robot DJ breaks into the stream between songs to tell you what you’re listening to. The soundtrack was composed by Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships. The resulting audio sounds pretty good, especially for a digital simulacrum. AI voices tend to dive straight into the uncharted valley with their strange robotic tones and halting speech. X, on the contrary, seems realistic. It occasionally stutters or sounds slightly slurred when naming an artist or song. But otherwise, it comes across as a cool and calm voice that guides you through your music. “Take a ride in a little jazz today,” X might invite you. “Tommy Lehman first”.
However, it does not seem natural enough. Even if the voice makes noises about the bands you’re listening to or shares, interruptions don’t feel warm or human. You might hate it when a dipshit spits a human horror joke over your favorite song to create an ad break, but at least there’s a stupid person behind that act. Cast your mind’s eye behind Spotify’s X Voice and you’ll find just the bare minimum – a vast array of machine-learning metrics and a carefully calculated treatment that tells you exactly what you think you want to hear. Listening to No DJ feels very lonely, a constant reminder of what isn’t.
What’s even less scary is how cavalier it is to say how much he knows about you. Like Spotify Wrapped, AI DJ’s access to your personal data is deeper than you think the music service is capable of. X knows enough to play music from your past and predict the emotions certain songs will evoke from you. While the changes feel random, you can tell the AI to change its feel with the tap of a button, and you can tap multiple times before landing on something you’re swinging. Even then, it’s learning more about you based on where your primary location is at certain times of the day or your location. A quiet part of Spotify’s data collection speaks loudly and packs it in like a friendly robo-pal. Say what you will about annoying human DJs, but at least they’re more than just a funhouse-mirror reflection of yourself.