Friday, June 26, 2009


My kid blew his Socratic English oral. He was downgraded for his style of discourse - oppositional and defiant – but not for his argument, that machines could never be truly human. This is a popular science fiction theme whose romantic expression is the story of the sensitive android with genuine emotions. A darker take on this concept has machines less concerned with experiencing love than running the show - in these stories, robots and computers take over human situations, or maybe even entire planets.

I'm a sucker for such yarns. I feel for the soulful replicant and fear the all-knowing power-mad machines. Still, it's hard not to take comfort in the fact that while my computer is no doubt smarter than me, I still have to call upon a human to save the day if my hard drive crashes.

It took true genius to puncture my smug human superiority. Itunes genius, the application that, based on a single song, puts together spot-on mixes from your music collection. Genius knows your every musical quirk. The bluegrass banjo riff that gives you St Vitus dance. The alt country lament you've harmonized with for so long, you forget your part isn't on the record. The obscure rock chick with the big, bad voice. The best folk singer no one's ever heard of. The sexy French electronica bon bon that always mellows you out. Your favorite U2 ballad, lesser-known Dylan song or Marvin Gaye makeout tune.

Genius has you down. It free-associates based on a modal harmony, a breathy singing style, a jazzy vibe. It can tell if your mood is randy, upbeat or introspective. Sometimes, it knows you better than your spouse. So while I appreciate the ability to make an instant playlist that perfectly matches my mental state, I'm still a little creeped out. My musical taste, which I thought was so eclectic, is apparently just another algorithm.

1 comment:

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

It's true that we still have to call on a human to fix our broken computers. And it isn't cheap.