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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Spotify’s AI DJ Has No Soul

Even the very best radio DJ can be annoying. It’s the nature of the role. No matter how smooth their voice is, they still break in between songs—or worse, talk over them. Their little interruptions, popping into your life at unexpected and often inopportune times, remind you they’re there. They can be annoying, sure, but they’re also comforting, because they’re friendly and familiar humans.

Of course, nobody listens to the radio anymore. We all have Spotify accounts, or mooch off someone else’s. (Thanks Dad!) The radio DJ is a dinosaur, buried and compressed and repurposed to fuel endless algorithmically generated streaming playlists. In a way, it is a blessing. Choose a genre or mood and groove without interruption until the end of time. In the background, an 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 simmer in the background. They want to bring them to the forefront. Partly to show off and try to cash in on the current AI gold rush, but also, I think, in an effort to humanize their algorithms. They shove them into the spotlight to convince people the AIs are super chill, actually, and can hang with us meatsacks.

Spotify, king of the algorithmic playlist, is eager to do just that. The music streaming service is rolling out a new AI DJ service starting this week. It is 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 last year of the AI voice service Sonantic. The robot DJ breaks into the stream between songs to tell you what you’re listening to. The voice is modeled on the melodious rumble of Xavier “X” Jernigan, Spotify’s head of cultural partnerships. The generated audio sounds fantastic, especially for a digital simulacrum. AI voices have a tendency to divebomb straight into the uncanny valley, with their strange intonations and halting, robotic cadences. X, in contrast, sounds realistic. Occasionally it stumbles or sounds slightly stilted when saying the name of an artist or song. But otherwise it comes across as a cool, calm voice guiding you through your music. “Take a journey through a little bit of jazz today,” X may invite you. "Tommy Lehman up first.”

However, it does not sound quite natural enough. Though the voice makes quips or shares tidbits about bands you’re listening to, the interruptions never feel warm or personable. You may hate when a dipshit human shock jock word-vomits over the outro of your favorite song to tee up an ad break, but at least there is indeed a dipshit human behind that action. Cast your mind’s eye behind Spotify’s X voice and you will find only the void—a vast jumble of machine-learning metrics and carefully calculated curation that tells you what it thinks you want to hear. Listening to the AI DJ feels eerily lonely, in that it is a constant reminder of what it is not.

What’s even more unnerving is how cavalier it is about how much it knows about you. Like Spotify Wrapped, the AI DJ’s access to your personal data goes deeper than you may think a music service is capable of. X knows enough to play music from your past and guess the emotions that specific songs evoke from you. You can tell the AI to change the mood with the tap of a button, though the changes feel random, and it can take several taps before landing on something you vibe with. Even then, it’s learning still more about you, like where your headspace is at certain times of the day or based on your location. It is saying the quiet part about Spotify’s data collection out loud, and packaging it as a friendly robo-pal. Say what you will about the annoying human DJ, but at least they’re more than a funhouse-mirror reflection of yourself.

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Here’s some other tech news from this week.

YouTube Music Adds Podcasts

Speaking of music, Google's wayward music streaming service YouTube Music is still plugging along. This week, Kai Chuk, YouTube’s head of podcasting, said that podcasts are heading to YouTube Music in the near future. The lack of dedicated podcast support has long been an odd oversight for the platform, given how many podcasters also stream video of their sessions on YouTube.

While the company hasn’t announced specifics about the feature, it will likely need some changes from other YouTube services. YouTube videos won't play in the background on mobile devices unless you subscribe to YouTube Premium. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case with podcasts when they arrive. Google hasn’t said when the dedicated podcast feature will make it on the YouTube Music platform, except that it is coming soon.

Google Eraser

Google announced some new features coming to its Photos app this week. The main attraction is Magic Eraser, which allows you to remove unwanted images or objects from photos. The feature was just on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 7; now it’s coming to all phones on a Google One plan. Other new goodies include HDR effects that color-balance photos, and even more collage designs for the digital crafters out there. Also, Google One members now get free shipping on print orders.

Most of the changes are only for subscribers of Google One, Google’s cloud storage service, so if you don’t pay for that, then you’re just going to have to Photoshop that random guy out of your beach pics yourself.

Off Switch

Back in the bygone days of streaming, companies like Netflix didn’t seem to mind that people shared their accounts with just about everyone in their lives. But now the streaming ecosystem has grown so belated it has fallen into disarray. Netflix is cracking down on account sharing, platforms are hiking up prices and introducing ads, and HBO Max is erasing stuff on its platform entirely.

This week on the Gadget Lab podcast, WIRED senior editor Angela Watercutter joins the show to talk about why streaming has gotten so bad, and where the cluttered world of subscription services goes from here.

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